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Wine. Bottle? Or Bulk? – Which is Best?

Wine by the flagon, Great value - great taste !

A couple of weeks ago, I read a post on a wine social networking site which essentially poured scorn on the notion that decent, drinkable wine is available in anything other than a standard 75cl bottle.

Wine boxes? Fine for picnics. Big 5-litre glass flagons? Or even worse, plastic jerry cans? Strictly for the impoverished wine drinker, or those who’d have trouble telling the difference between Chateau Lafite and Diet Coke.

Proper wine? Buy a bottle.

You might not be surprised to learn I profoundly disagree.

Wine by the flagon, Great value - great taste !
Wine by the flagon. Great value – and good wine too.

While flagons of wine have been around since heaven knows when, boxes are a relatively recent introduction, first appearing in Australia in the mid-1960’s.

I can remember one of the first ranges in the UK, produced by a company called Stowell’s of Chelsea, which were pretty dire. But then again, as my wines of choice at the time veered between whatever was the current cheapest from a list including a Spanish red named Don Cortez; Bull’s Blood from Hungary (which I think may still actually be around); anything from the centre of world wine excellence that was Morocco; Blue Nun, or Mateus Rose, who was I to judge?

It was an accepted fact that wine – all wine – came in glass bottles. Nothing else. Because…they just did. OK? And boxed wines were little more than one step up from Methylated Spirits. Strictly for the depraved or the desperate.

My, my. How things change…

Ticking All the Boxes

If wine-buying is seen as a pyramid, topped by First Growth Clarets, choice Burgundies and other impeccable – but stratospherically-priced – wines affordable only to Russian oligarchs, oil potentates and English Premier League footballers, then wine boxes are the broad-based bottom tier.

Not even I, one of their staunchest defenders, would ever claim you’re going to find a great – or even a very good – wine in a box. But such are the advances in wine production and the public palate, you’re increasingly unlikely to find a bad one.

What you will find is good, everyday red, white or pink made in every major wine-producing area of the world.

A single, standard, 5-litre box will take up less space than the equivalent number of bottles and – perhaps most importantly of all – once opened will keep for much longer than an opened bottle ?

Why? Once you’ve opened a bottle and drunk a glass or two, irrespective of how tightly you re-cork it, there’ll be air in the bottle. And after anything more than a day or so, wine and air become like oil and water. They don’t mix well. The wine oxydises, losing colour and taste, becoming flat, lifeless and eventually developing off-flavours.

That doesn’t happen with boxed wines. The plastic foil bag inside the box contracts as it empties, keeping air from reaching the wine and so keeping it fresh. An open bottle really needs to be finished within a couple of days at most. An open wine box will easily keep for a couple of weeks – and longer.

But a wine just for picnics ? Home-made pork pies, cold roast chicken, runny Brie, a crusty baguette and strawberries are pretty essential picnic fare too. And who’s criticising them ?

And wine boxes shouldn’t be seen either as the last resort for decent everyday wine available in benighted areas where nothing else is available. In this part of Italy too, many wine producers put their everyday wines in boxes.

But even more cantine sell what’s affectionately known as ‘petrol pump wine’. In flagons.

I’ll Take A Goatskin Of Your Finest Red

Petrol pump wine ? The wine itself is stored in big stainless steel vats and dispensed into flagons via the same kind of trigger-operated nozzle you’ll find in filling stations everywhere. And there’ll even be a meter attached – just like a petrol pump – so you can be charged for the wine you buy.

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Sounds utterly appalling. The wine must be awful. Right ?

Wrong. If you’re lucky enough – like us – to live in a wine-producing area of Italy – (which in practice means pretty nearly everywhere) – you’ll have a choice about where you buy your everyday wine. Bad wine won’t sell. Good wine will. Some pump wine is is very good indeed. And at around €1.10 – €1.50 a litre, it’d be almost perverse to buy anything else.

Top-class, prestige wines; special occasion and Sunday lunch wine; wine in shops and supermarkets comes in 75cl glass bottles. Pump wine comes in glass too. But in the form of 5-litre flagons. True, to lighten the load a bit, these can be plastic, but they’re a bit flimsy and prone to splitting, whereas a properly looked-after glass flagon can last a long time.

Or if you’re an ultra-traditionalist, you can wander into your local cantina with a goatskin and they’ll probably top it up without batting an eyelid.

If you’ve been paying close attention to what’s been going on so far in this blog, this is the moment you’ll be jumping up and down trying to catch my attention.

‘Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,’ you’ll be shouting, ‘remember what you said earlier about not leaving a half-full bottle for too long because the wine inside will go off ? Who’s going to knock back a 5-litre flagon in an evening ? How are you going to keep that fresh ?’

Aside from answering that you clearly don’t know the drinking ability of some of my friends, you have a point. And therein lies the one and only drawback about buying flagons of wine.

You have to decant the contents into bottles.

A slight drag I’ll grant you, but hardly deal-breaking. Provided you rinse your bottles out well with hot water between each use; and provided you buy a stock of synthetic stoppers – as opposed to using the original corks, which can become tainted – your wine will be fine.

5 litres translates into six standard-sized bottles – plus half-a-litre. Which you can drink with dinner. This will cost you between €5.50 and €7.50.  And where can you buy six bottles of good, everyday wine – plus half-a-litre – for that?

If we’re talking good wine – and by good wine, I mean the kind of wine you’ll really enjoy drinking – and find your friends dropping by with increasing regularity to share with you – simple answer is, that kind of price is a show-stopper.

I’ll put my money where my mouth is. Go to Cantina Orsogna in Abruzzo. As I’ve mentioned before, it was Italy’s ‘Cantina of the Year’ in 2012. Invest in a flagon of their pumped Montepulciano, which’ll cost you €1.40/litre. Which works out at €1.05/bottle. (Sorry if I start giggling at this point…)

Take it home. Pour a glass. Take a sniff and a sip. Now tell me it’s not a deliciously good wine and that €1.05 for a bottle isn’t the best value since the USA paid Russia 2¢ an acre for Alaska in 1867.

I absolutely triple-dare you.

Or better yet, discover a petrol pump wine that works for you. And then tell us about it.

By David Brenner

David Brenner
David Brenner

In 2007, after a lengthy career as a television broadcast journalist in the UK – latterly with BBC World – David, his wife Pauline and their three cats moved to Abruzzo , where they now run Villasfor2, providing three holiday rental villas just for couples. Wine lovers who go stay with David, will be able to have long, interesting chats with him about Italy’s many wonderful wines. If you are not a wine buff, David may well end up converting you!

In addition to his passion for discovering and promoting Italian wine, David’s regular AboutAbruzzo blog charts daily life in this little-known region of Italy.

Why not send David Italian wines for him to review? He can also run tasting sessions with his guests and write about his findings either on Italy Chronicles or on his own blog.

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