Pinot Grigio travels light in new shape

Glass Act: August 29, 2014

My endless quest for a good bottle of Pinot Grigio in this province recently took interesting shape.

An octagonal prism, to be precise.

Let me begin by saying that I have no problem drinking milk out of a bag. And even with my impractical sense of nostalgia, I have come to appreciate the benefits of screw caps replacing cork stoppers on wine bottles. But when faced last week with a Tetra Pak of Pinot Grigio at Premier Wine & Spirits, I had to swallow esthetic outrage at such scandalous packaging before curiosity compelled me to bring the wine to the cash register.

Boy, am I glad I swallowed!

Ciao Pinot Grigio delle Venezie ($15 a litre — that’s $11.25 if it were a standard 750 ml) is an IGT wine from northeastern Italy, where they produce the crispest of white wine, so I knew this, er, carton held potential.

Most affordable Pinot Grigio available in Nova Scotia reminds me of overpriced baby food — it gets all up in my face with ripe fruity richness that is nice the first few slurps, but after a while, I feel like I’m sitting at the kids’ table.

This Pinot G-in-a-box is a breath of fresh air. Vanilla bean at first sniff, the aromas turn into not-quite-placeable fruit (honeydew? pear? early peach?).

I recall my teacher’s advice on identifying white wine: if you can’t tell what it is, it’s probably Pinot Grigio. This one is clean and dry with bright minerals in the back of the throat, the sensation of having just sucked back a few oysters. It left my mouth aching for cheese ...and more Pinot Grigio.

And, for all its bland practicality, it turns out the Tetra Pak is not so square.

Alternative wine packaging is gaining ground as the global demand for wine increases; wine on tap, boxed wine and bulk wine (think 25,000-litre shipping bladders) are making sense economically, environmentally and, in some cases, in quality.

The standard glass bottle makes up 40 per cent of the weight of a bottle of wine. At eight per cent of that, a Tetra Pak represents a whopping 35 per cent reduction in the weight of a shipment of wine.

The boxy shape allows greater volume to fit in a shipping container, and the carton breaks less often. For wine that crosses oceans and continents, these are significant cost savings to the producer (which can be passed on to the consumer), and a massive reduction in the carbon footprint of the imported wine we drink so voraciously.

Locally, some wineries are moving in the bulk direction. Domaine de Grand Pre is supplying Stubborn Goat Gastropub in Halifax with the Maritimes’ first draft wine, a semi-sweet white blend of l’Acadie Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Muscat. The wine costs $7 for a five-ounce glass, $10 for eight ounces.

Jost Vineyards produces three-litre bags of l’Acadie Blanc-Pinot Grigio (a white blend) and Leon Millot-Marechal Foch (a red) for $30, available through Nova Scotia Liquor Corp. That’s $10 per 750 millilitres, whereas purchasing the white by the bottle costs $15.

According to Grand Pre, wine on tap is an opportunity for huge cost savings in packaging materials (no bottles, corks or labels), and in labour (no time-consuming bottling process).

Counterintuitively, boxed wine and wine on tap can be higher quality than bottles. Often, it means eliminating processing steps between the winery and the consumer, reducing the opportunity for the wine’s exposure to oxygen and contaminants. Wine in bulk is also more temperature-stable, preserving freshness and style.

Boxes, bladders and Tetra Paks work just fine for young wine (one or two years), but these alternative packages are not appropriate for cellaring wine. Plastic bags and cartons cannot compare to the material stability of glass bottles; after a few years, they become a quality concern for aging wine and a health concern for its exposure to potential chemical leeching.

If solid waste is your pet peeve, recyclability is dependent on local programs. Wine bottles in Nova Scotia are shipped to Montreal to be recycled in a glass plant. Tetra Paks are shipped to Korea, where they are disassembled; the inner material is turned into fine writing paper and the plastic and aluminum layers are distributed on the local market.

The way of the future it may be, but I would hesitate to serve Ciao Pinot Grigio at a dinner party, even if it were a family dining style of service. The carton is an awkward shape and I had to hold it in two hands to pour, and even then, it squished in at the top and nearly slipped out of my hands, which could be disastrous in the case of red wine. Laundry should never interrupt dinner.

The Tetra Pak would be perfect, however, to bring camping, to the beach or on a picnic where toting a bottle can become tedious and where breakage would be problematic.

Most importantly, my prejudices about wine packaging have been challenged. Given the economic and ecological advantages of a Tetra Pak, I am, when appropriate, willing to forgo the pop of a cork and the elegant pour from a streamlined neck.

Sometimes, it turns out, thinking outside the box means drinking right from it.

This column was originally published by The Chronicle Herald.

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