The humble "bag in a box" is much derided by pompous wine aficionados. Odd really, when wine in "soft packs" (as the category is tagged by the industry) represents more than 40 per cent of the wine Australians drink. That's by volume, of course, and therein lies the key issue. Soft packs are about volume, not absolute quality and not profit - if you examine the financials of our leading wine producers.
the (sydney) magazine
Next edition out July 30
Last year, the giant Foster's Group started to quietly exit the category, taking cask wine stalwarts such as Lindemans and Kaiser Stuhl with it. Ask the other big industry players and they'll admit that there is no significant profit in soft packs but that the volume helps reduce the huge overheads of a modern winery. And consumers? Well, they just want a decent glass of wine at a fair price - especially now.
The wine cask was first patented by the Angove family in 1965 and perfected by David Wynn, of Wynn's Coonawarra Estate fame, a few years later. Casks enticed many Australians to the European habit of everyday wine drinking. The 1970s and '80s saw the emergence of our food culture and, in close parallel, Australian drinkers moved from beer, spirits, port and sherry to sparkling and table wine. It's a notion not far from the way Europeans drink wine - as a daily beverage without fuss, pomp or circumstance. In Mediterranean countries, wine lovers enjoy a drink at a cafe or trattoria where it is served in a carafe or jug, while everyday supplies come in large plastic bottles from the supermarche.
Under-40s may consider casks abhorrent - as they screw the top off a cleanskin. Commercial brands and cleanskins in the $4-$10 range have really changed the market. The response from soft-pack producers has been to move upmarket with smaller two- and three-litre packs that are labelled with the grape variety.
It's a dramatic move from the big-is-best era of four- and five-litre casks that were labelled with generic names such as claret, burgundy, chablis and white burgundy. The move to varietal labelling has been hastened by two things - an oversupply of quality fruit and the decision to abandon the use of those generic names.
The grape surplus has given the sector a big leg-up with the best two-litre soft packs now containing the same wine as marketed in a 750ml bottle, the Banrock Station range being just one (excellent) example. Banrock Station comes from Constellation Wines, the industry giant that has just released a new twist on the soft pack with its upmarket Bud Naked 1.5-litre range - perfect for picnics and glass-free venues. The McLaren Vale Shiraz Tempranillo introduces the deliciously savoury mainstream red variety of Spain while the Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc is a clear sign that even the New Zealand wine industry is in surplus.
De Bortoli uses its soft-pack wines as stepping stones. The entry-level Gold Seal Dry White and Dry Red come in both four- and 10-litre sizes. The next step up is a four-litre Premium Varietal cask and then comes a two-litre Premium Reserve cask. It's a natural flow-on to the 750ml Sacred Hill, Deen De Bortoli Vat series and the Victorian Windy Peak and prestige Yarra Valley range. Yalumba uses a similar philosophy.
In an era where brand identity is all important, soft packs help seduce consumers into the corporate fold. Their sheer volume offers our winemakers the opportunity to maintain the high standards of their prestige and iconic wines with a natural outlet for lesser quality fruit. Soft packs deliver what they offer - highly drinkable, everyday beverage wines, conveniently packaged at a bargain basement price.
Banrock Station Shiraz Cabernet 2 litre, $15.99
Banrock Station is all about value. The Shiraz Cabernet is rich in flavour, with ripe dark berry fruit enlivened with a hint of spice.
A pleasing grip of tannin makes it an ideal partner for barbecued lamb cutlets. Equivalent to $6 a bottle.
Bud Naked Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 1.5 litre, $19.99
Who'd have thought that we'd see Marlborough sav blanc in a soft pack? But here it is - and it's a beauty. Passionfruit and ripe gooseberry aromas burst from the glass. Enjoy it with a spicy prawn laksa. Equivalent to $10 a bottle.
De Bortoli Premium Reserve Cabernet Merlot 2 litre, $13.99
If ever there was a good deal, this is it. Dark plum and ripe cherry flavours merge with sweet spice and vanilla highlights. It's spotlessly made and deliciously quaffable - perfect with a spicy Sicilian pizza. Equivalent to $5.25 a bottle.
Morris Pressings Style Dry Red 4 litre, $21.99
This is a red with grunt. Made from the "pressings", it is the last wine squeezed from the skins of red grapes after fermentation. It's chock-a-block full of flavour and a perfect match for a meat pie with lashings of tomato sauce. Equivalent to $4.10 a bottle.
2008 Yalumba Premium Riesling 2 litre, $14.99
Yalumba is a riesling specialist - think Pewsey Vale and Heggies. Its Premium Riesling is in the same quality mode with floral aromatics, bright citrus flavours and a tangy finish. Enjoy it with fish and chips at the beach. Equivalent to $5.60 a bottle.