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Fernando Morales/The Globe and Mail

As part of an overall surge in wine sales, due in large part to Canadians staying home during the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers have embraced the convenience and cost-effective nature of large-format bag-in-box wines like never before.

Sales in Ontario last week saw an 84-per-cent increase in purchases of domestic products and 61-per-cent increase in purchases of imports compared to last year. There’s been a similar shift across the country.

Bag-in-box wines have been around for decades, but are often seen as inferior to brands sold in glass bottles. Top sales markets include Sweden, Norway and the United States, where competition has paved the way for more premium offerings.

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In Australia, where the format has long been widely embraced, wineries offer consumers the ability to buy the same popular brands in glass bottles, aluminum cans and two-, three- or four-litre boxes to suit their needs or whims. Reports suggest younger Australians opt for bottles, while cask wines are preferred by an older demographic.

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Despite increasing demand, in many parts of the world, for larger formats and packaging with a lower carbon footprint, bag-in-box wines don’t enjoy the same positive outlook in other markets, including here in Canada. The quality of the wine inside that plastic pouch is often considered substandard. Access to market is heavily restricted as stores afford significantly less shelf space for boxed wines, compared to traditional packaging. In Ontario, local wineries and import agents hope increased sales will open the category for more listings and afford consumers more choice.

Many North American wineries don’t put premium wine into bag-in-box for fear of not being taken seriously. They’re also troubled by the one-year shelf life of an unopened bag-in-box, compared with longer aging potential of a conventional glass bottle. As a result, the low-quality stigma becomes a self-filling prophecy.

A recent sampling of widely available boxed wines suggests there’s reason for the negative perception. While most are serviceable wines, the average quality leaves much to be desired: either too sweet, too bland or simply unpalatable. It’s common to judge a wine’s quality on the basis of whether or not you’d enjoy a second glass. A second sip can be out of the question in these cases.

There are bright spots. The SAQ in Quebec stocks three-litre boxes of François Lurton Les Fumées Blanches from France and Robertson Winery chenin blanc from South Africa, which are engaging whites to buy in bulk even if you’re not being confined to your home. British Columbia’s liquor board offers a three-litre box of the juicy and enjoyable Porta 6, from Portugal, a consistently pleasurable red blend to drink with or without a meal.

Recommendations for good boxed wines that enjoy better distribution appear below, but while we look to drink outside of the bottle, might I also suggest considering the increasing selection of single-serve cans?

Recyclable, portable and earmarked for a new generation of consumer, wine in aluminum cans is also designed for quick, convenient consumption. Popular California brands, such as the crisp and enjoyable Sofia Blanc de Blancs from the Coppola Winery and balanced and fruity Big House Birdman pinot grigio, helped introduce the category to consumers.

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You can expect to see more hit the shelves in the coming months, including pleasing Californian selections from Stel+Mar, a new brand created by Toronto natives Chris Noll and Justin Dumitrescu behind the Sheep Black Wine company.

Noll was the founder of Brickworks Cider, while Dumitrescu was president of cosmetics and skin care retailer Caryl Baker Visage. The wine lovers, who met through their children Stella and Marcus – hence the name Stel+Mar – planned a wine project that embraced environmentally friendly packaging, such as cans and Tetra Paks, to bring a range of easy-going, enjoyable wines to market.

The Stel+Mar Premium White is 100-per-cent unoaked chardonnay and the Premium Red is 100-per-cent zinfandel, although you’ll have to look at the fine print to see mention of the grape varieties. No vintage date is specified, even though they qualify. The simplicity of the labelling and fresh styles, both the red and the white were made to be vibrant with low residual sugar levels, was designed to appeal to millennials.

Currently available in Alberta and British Columbia, the Stel+Mar Premium White and Premium Red cans will start appearing at LCBO outlets and online May 8. The Premium Rosé, which is packaged in 500 mL Tetra Pak cartons and sold as a set of six cartons equaling three litres, is set to arrive June 1.

Barefoot Pinot Grigio (United States)

rating out of 100

87

PRICE: $32.99/3 L

This fruity and enjoyable white wine from California doesn’t carry a vintage date. With admirable consistency, it’s manufactured to meet a price point and an established flavour profile year after year. The mix of citrus, floral and tree fruit appeals. Drink now. Available in British Columbia at the above price for three-litre bag-in-box, $33.49 in Saskatchewan, $35.99 in Manitoba, $41.99 in Nova Scotia, and $50.58 in Newfoundland.

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Folonari Pinot Grigio delle Venezie 2019 (Italy)

rating out of 100

86

PRICE: $46.05/3 L

Folonari’s pinot grigio is reliably fresh, crisp and simple. This is a satisfactory everyday white wine option that’s balanced and delicately flavoured. Available in Ontario at the above price for three-litre bag-in-box, $44.99 in Manitoba, $49.98 in Nova Scotia, $61.18 in Newfoundland.

Jackson-Triggs Proprietors Selection Sauvignon Blanc (Canada)

rating out of 100

87

PRICE: $46.95/4 L

Made with sauvignon blanc purchased in bulk and packaged in Ontario, this continues to be one of the best of the international Canadian blends, a category designed to compete against value-priced imports. The abundance of well-made and enjoyable sauvignon blanc from producers in Chile, South Africa and elsewhere means it consistently offers up a vibrant and citrusy white with marked herbal notes and mouthwatering acidity. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price for four-litre bag-in-box, $38.99 in Saskatchewan, $40.49 in Manitoba, $46.99 in Nova Scotia and $59.97 in Newfoundland.

Lindeman’s Bin 65 Chardonnay (Australia)

rating out of 100

87

PRICE: $34.99/3 L

This is made in a crowd-pleasing style that’s fresh, fruity and flavourful. Attractive pear, peach and tropical fruit flavours stand out, while a clean, crisp finish adds to the appeal. Drink now. Available in British Columbia at the above price for three litre bag-in-box, $37.49 in Saskatchewan, $39.99 in Nova Scotia and $53.98 in Newfoundland.

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Radio Boka Tempranillo (Spain)

rating out of 100

88

PRICE: $39.05/3 L

Here’s an agreeable red with attractive fruit and some earthy complexity. Made in an easy-drinking, medium-bodied style, this boasts decent fruit and freshness with some spice and earthy notes. Drink now. Available at the above price in Ontario, various prices in British Columbia, $37.99 in Saskatchewan, and $38.99 in Manitoba.

Stel+Mar Premium White (United States)

rating out of 100

88

PRICE: $4.95/250 mL

This is a well-made California chardonnay that’s lively and flavourful, with pear, apple and pineapple notes that add refreshment. Dry and focused, it has a clean, bright character. The enjoyable style and single-serve can format make it a natural patio or poolside option, but it’s also an accessible all-season white for any occasion. Drink now. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in British Columbia and Alberta.

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