By AJ Linn
Most of us give very little thought to how wine is presented. As far as we are concerned it comes in glass bottles of three-quarters of a litre, and that’s it. There are of course variations, particularly for specialist wines, and there are wide national disparities across the globe. Living in Spain, or indeed in practically any southern European country, the small revolution that has been taking place over the last two decades – which affects the way we buy and store wine – has hardly been noticeable. Just mentioning, for example, that in Sweden well over half the wine consumed (reportedly as much as 80 per cent) is sold in a “Bag-in-Box” format may come as a surprise. This method of packaging consists of a cardboard box into which is fitted a plastic airtight container with a small tap for drawing off the contents.
The sizes commonly available range from two litres to 15 litres, and the outstanding benefit of the system is that, since air never enters the sealed inner plastic sac, it is possible to draw off any quantity over a period of weeks, or even months, with-out the wine deteriorating. Put another way, the Bag-in Box, or “BIB”, is the most hygienic and practical bottling method available to wineries, and the strongest defence against fraud (the BIB box cannot be refilled). At the same time, it is overwhelmingly environment-friendly and normally preferred by consumers. And while this phenomenal packaging method is in use worldwide and in constant evolution, there is a little island in southern Andalucía that has invoked the power of the law to have it prohibited. Incredible but true. Never in the entire centuries-long history of wine has there been an example of a particular presentation being outlawed at the request of a lobby that believes it is not in the interests of producers to allow it. Should this not be a matter best decided by the regulatory organisations of the trade, rather than by the rule of law? This ridiculous conflict has lasted nearly a decade, and Goliath has finally beaten David. Nor is there any appeal possible, since the decision by the Supreme Court is final, although the Brussels route might be an option if the injured parties get their act together. To its credit the Junta de Andalucía took the side of the BIB-supporting bodegas on the basis that more jobs would be created. Fedejerez, the trade body that the Goliaths belong to, has always fought to maintain the veto on box-wine, making it clear that its grounds were to preserve the image of sherry rather than allow it to be sold in a presentation that would be undesirable. In a phrase, the BIB has been prohibited for the almost unbelievable reason that it might be negative for the image of sherry.
While in France, Italy and most north European countries box wine is accepted as routine, the big sherry bodegas have blocked smaller bodegas in the region from using it. The most hypocritical aspect is that these same big names, among them Osborne, Barbadillo and González Byass, have used this method of packaging for their export wines for years, and in Spain they currently commercialise their other non-Jerez wines in BIB.
These same companies have been happily selling their products to E.U. supermarket chains to be bottled and labelled completely outside their control for decades (BOB: Buyer’s Own Brand). Even the five-litre glass containers (garrafas), used locally to transport wine and vulnerable to substitution of inferior wine, are unaffected by the legal ruling. It really looks as if no-one, except the small producers affected by the ban, and the drinking public of course, wants sherry to be sold in anything but standard glass bottles.
While these lunatic goings-on cause most people to question the sanity of those who are responsible for marketing sherry, on the other side of the globe, where the BIB was invented, there is another sort of campaign to have it forbidden. Australia has this dubious distinction. After 50 years of happy out-of-the-box drinking, the BIB is being blamed for irresponsible over-consumption. Essentially the Royal Australian College of Physicians and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists want taxes on box wine to be increased to a level that will discourage young people from buying it. But, as many Aussies believe, if you’re set on drinking lots of wine for the night, you’re going to do it no matter what. You have the option of either lugging home a big box stuffed with multiple standard-size bottles, or buying the giant-size multi-bottle BIB. As they say down under, which side of the box are you on?