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Bota Box is one of a number of quality winemakers looking to change the perception of boxed wine.

Once the subject of mockery and distain – Château Cardbordeaux, anyone? – boxed wine is quickly becoming a go-to for shrewd shoppers stocking up to weather the COVID-19 storm.

Normally promoted as a practical purchase that offers portability and convenience for large social gatherings, the value-for-money proposition of boxed wine, along with its shelf life, make it desirable for Canadians adjusting to the new normal of physical distancing at home.

Wine sales soared across the country in March as COVID-19 measures came into effect, with standard 750 mL bottle formats ringing up the largest increase. But there was also a marked increase in larger-format sales as well. Ontario saw increases of 122 per cent for domestic bag-in-box products and 87 per cent for imported brands compared to March, 2019. So-called cellared-in-Canada blends, which contain mainly international wine bought in bulk and bottled in Ontario, enjoyed 62 per cent growth.

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That spike in sales may well change people’s perception of boxed wine and lead to increased demand even after restrictions are lifted. After all, the container doesn’t indicate a wine’s quality, it’s what’s inside that counts.

Sometimes called cask wines, bag-in-box wines have enjoyed long-term success in global markets as a sensible way to transport and sell inexpensive wine. When I was hired as summer student at Hillebrand Estates Winery (now Trius Winery) in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., 32 years ago, the bag-in-the-box filling station was a compulsory stop on the guided tour, after the demonstration vineyard, press house and fermentation cellar. The move was to sell the winery’s bargain wines sold in four-litre boxes, such as Canadian Chablis and Baron Blanc, both blends of locally grown French hybrid grapes seyval blanc and vidal.

Radio Boka's bag-in-box Tempranillo sells for $38.95 at the LCBO in Ontario.

Recently, the category has evolved to include higher-priced wines and is wooing new consumers who aren’t hidebound by tradition. A major selling point is that larger-volume casks are cheaper than buying the equivalent amount sold in a conventional glass bottles. Bota Box, Radio Boka and Long Weekend Wine Co. are part of the new wave of quality winemakers looking to change people’s minds about boxed wines.

What’s lost in romantic appeal is gained by eco-friendly credentials, such as a reduced carbon footprint from more wine in less packaging, and the ability to keep wine fresh after opening for weeks as opposed to days. Once opened, oxygen will interact with wine and affect its flavour. The tap and plastic bag in boxed wines are designed to restrict oxygen to keep the wine fresh. Producers typically cite a four- to six-week window, depending on how quickly you drink it. I think these wines are best enjoyed within three weeks after opening, but trust your taste buds.

Another thing to consider as you calculate your wine strategy during the continuing shutdown, unlike toilet paper or canned food, boxed wine has a shelf life. The plastic bladder is permeable. The wine inside will oxidize over time. It’s good for one year after its filling date, which is typically clearly stamped on the side of the carton.

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