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Bag-in-box the ‘unloved child’ of the wine trade

The UK drinks trade should embrace bag-in-box packaging as an environmentally friendly alternative to glass for entry-level wines, according to wine writer Robert Joseph, who has criticised the trade’s approach to such packaging, calling it the “unloved child” of the wine trade.

The two-litre box was developed by Yalumba in the 1980s, which Joseph argues to be a more elegant way to present a boxed wine compared to the 3-litre format common to the UK

While bag-in-box (BIB) wines have been a part of the bulk wine business for years, only since 2017 has it been possible to identify bulk wine destined for boxed wine, with export figures split into wine transported in containers of 2-10 litres, separately from bulk wine of 10 litres plus.

BIB wines now account for 2% of the world’s trade in wine by value and 4% by volume, according to Rafael del Ray, director of Spain’s OeMv, speaking at a masterclass at the World Bulk Wine Exhibition this week.

The top 5 bag-in-box markets are Sweden, Norway, the USA, Germany and Belfast, with sales growing in Northern America, which recorded growth of 8.5% over the past 12 months to 17 August, said Catherine Mendoza, head of Scandinavia at bulk wine broker Ciatti.

In Scandinavia, boxed wines make up “half the shelf space”, with the government having thrown its weight behind the sustainability message, recognising that boxed wines offer 100% recyclability, lower transport cost and emissions.

“In Scandinavia you have a wide offer of wines and very good quality wines from high end appellations, and people are also trained,” explained Mendoza. “They taste the wines and have reviews from journalists. Basically they want to learn and discover so they have access to these great wines. And [the fact that it’s boxed wine] is not a concern for them. It’s not linked to lower wine quality.”

In the UK, says Joseph, the perception of the quality of boxed wines is not nearly as high, describing its presentation to the consumer an “elephant in the room”, with mistakes in its marketing made from the beginning. 

Comparing its inception into the UK market, compared with Australia, Joseph said: “Who thought that bag-in-box was a good description of wine packaging to talk to the public? BIB was originally developed for battery acid. The country that took on BIB first was Australia. They didn’t call it BIB. They called it cask. In Britain we called it BIB and we also put the worst possible wine into it.”

However support for the format is growing. Last year Waitrose launched a new premium bag-in-box wine range across its stores to meet increasing demand for larger formats.

The new range comprises six wines, varying from 1.5L to 2.25L boxes (equivalent of three bottles of wine), including a new 1.5L Côte Bleu Méditerranée Rosé (RRP: £14.99/1.5L) – the first time Waitrose has sold a pale, dry rosé in the bag-in-box format.

Waitrose said at the time that bag-in-box wines were becoming more popular due to growing consumer concern for practical and environmental alternatives to glass bottles, given their lower carbon footprint, recyclable packaging and ability to stay fresher for longer. A boxed wine will stay fresh in the fridge for 4-5 months.

Currently, the largest exporters of bag-in-box wines are France, Germany, Italy, South Africa and Australia, where sales of BIB have actually declined in its domestic market by 5% in the past 12 months, says Mendoza.

Last year Waitrose launched a new premium bag-in-box wine range across its stores to meet increasing demand for larger formats.

“Young people specifically go for bottles rather than BIB,” she said. “Sales of BIB are by an older class of people. There’s still a market for BIB which is not domestic, but international.”

The environmental benefits are perhaps the most emotive argument for bag-in-box wines, with Joseph sharing an impressive statistic that if all entry level wines in the US were put into BIB instead of bottles, it would be the equivalent of taking 400,000 cars off the road in terms of weight and energy expended.

“We need to start embracing [BIB] and think how can we sell it,” he said. “It’s been the unloved child of wine. The exception is Scandinavia, where you have had governments saying ‘we like this’. When we are looking at all the different formats, we have cans and a lot more single serves. Why do we bottle in 75cl? It’s the lung capacity of a French glass blower in the 17th century.

“We have been to the moon and I have a computer in my pocket that’s a phone, but we are still putting wine in the same size bottle. Why? How stupid are we? We as an industry need to start thinking a lot more laterally in packaging. If it’s not recyclable we should be making it recyclable and telling people to recycle it.”

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