Max Allen gives Jancis Robinson the lowdown on Australian casks.
Words by Max Allen for JancisRobinson.com
Australia invented bag-in-box wine, and went on to invent many a name for it, including 'cask wine'. It has now been reinvented...
‘We were selling 100 boxes an hour through our website at one point’, says South Australian winemaker Con-Greg Grigoriou. ‘Who’d have thought there’d be so much interest in cask wine these days?’
Grigoriou is telling me about the enthusiastic reception to his first bag-in-box wine, a 1.5-litre cask of Nero d’Avola released in 2020 under his bold, brash Delinquente Wine Co label.
‘I mean, I thought it might be a cool idea to do it’, he says. ‘But I didn’t expect it to be quite so well received. Now we’re heading into our third vintage, and I’m making a lot more. And our first export order of the casks has landed in the US.’
Delinquente is one of a few Australian producers to have launched high-quality, interesting, trendy wines in cask over the last couple of years – and the success of these new-wave casks is inspiring more winemakers to jump on the boxwagon.
Owen Latta of Latta Vino near Ballarat in western Victoria was one of the first in 2018 when he was commissioned by the influential Sydney restaurant group that owned Icebergs and The Dolphin Hotel to produce a 10-litre bag-in-box filled with a skin-contact field blend. Called Owen’s Big Orange, the wine was sold by the glass, carafe and take-away cask (at a cool AU$250 for all ten litres) through the group’s outlets.
More recently, Marcus Radny of Gonzo Vino has established a strong market for his range of colourfully packaged three-litre wines (see image above) made using Portuguese and Mediterranean grape varieties grown in Ashley Ratcliff’s Ricca Terra vineyards in South Australia’s Riverland.
Jared Dixon of cult label Jilly Wines, based in the New England Australia region of northern New South Wales, has released a number of three-litre boxes filled with wine from southern Italian varieties grown near Mildura, as well as casks developed in collaboration with progressive Sydney retailers DRNKS and P&V Merchants.
And Melbourne-based brand, Hey Tomorrow, launched in mid 2021 by a group of the city’s hospitality professionals, features smartly designed, two-litre casks filled with a diverse range of wines from leading small-scale producers across the country, including the Koerner brothers in the Adelaide Hills, Lowboi in Great Southern in Western Australia and Lethbridge in Geelong.
‘It’s gone really well’, says Hey Tomorrow founding partner Sacha Imrie when I ask her about the launch. ‘Sales during lockdown were good, and now that Melbourne is open again we’ve got into retailers like Blackhearts & Sparrows, and some great restaurants are pouring by the glass from the cask: Cutler & Co (leading Melbourne restaurateur Andrew McConnell’s flagship venue) is loving the Lowboi Gruner Veltliner.’
These new-wave bag-in-box brands aren’t the only examples of non-glass wine packaging emerging in Australia. A number of producers, from larger winemakers such as Trentham Estate on the NSW-side of the Murray River near Mildura, to the small Trutta Wines in central Victoria, have released ranges of wine in 1.5-litre pouches – or ‘bagnums’, as Sydney retailer Sparrow and Vine (already experienced at selling wine in keg) has called its 1.5-litre soft containers.
And industry veteran Mike Davies, who has serviced wineries across the country for decades with his mobile-bottling company Portavin, has launched a range of lightweight, fully recyclable 750-ml wine pouches under the Greenskin Wine label.
But there’s something particularly interesting about the emergence of new cask wines; Australians have a long and bittersweet relationship with bag-in-box plonk – AKA ‘Chateau Cardboard’, ‘the silver bladder’, ‘goon bag’ or simply ‘goon’. Indeed, the cask is embedded in Australia’s national drinking psyche.
Aussies of all ages know – and are inordinately proud of the fact that – it was a South Australian, Tom Angove, who in 1965 became the first person in the world to patent the concept of selling wine in a gallon (4.5-litre) bag sealed inside a box. The adoption of the cask in the 1970s by major producers such as Orlando – with their hugely popular Coolabah brand – introduced generations of Australians to everyday wine and helped boost overall consumption. By the early 1990s, two-thirds of all domestic wine sales came in cask, the vast majority of it generic ‘fruity white’ or ‘soft red’ made from unnamed grape varieties grown in unnamed regions.
Today, sales of large-volume, cheap casks like Coolabah have dropped to less than a quarter of the market –although that’s still a lot of bag-in-box booze. And getting shit-faced on cask is still a rite of passage for many young Australians: the drinking game Goon of Fortune involves pegging a silver bladder to a rotary clothes line and spinning it, with the person under the spot where it stops opening the tap and pouring wine into their mouth.
This intemperate attitude towards goon was there from the start: the television advertisements for Orlando’s 1970s Coolabah brand featured men (and they were all men) retrieving their cask from where they’d stashed it for safekeeping – buried in the sand at the beach or behind a fake bookcase – with the tagline ‘Where do you hide your Coolabah?’, a campaign that actively encouraged furtive drinking.
Public health advocates and people working in communities where alcohol abuse is a serious problem – particularly communities with a large Indigenous population – are highly critical of the ingrained, cheap, quantity-over-quality aspect of cask wine culture.
Australian wine, whether in bottle or bag, is taxed on its value rather than the volume of alcohol it contains, a system which makes casks of cheap wine seem even cheaper: the biggest liquor chain, Dan Murphy’s, for example, is currently selling four-litre casks of ‘fresh dry white’ for just AU$10 each – which equates to AU$0.33 per standard drink/unit of alcohol. Compared to, say, AU$1 per standard drink in an AU$8 bottle of Jacobs Creek Chardonnay, you can see how this makes goon the cheapest way to get pissed in this country – which is why governments in Western Australia and the Northern Territory, for example, have imposed sales restrictions and floor pricing, to curb the rampant consumption of cask wines.
Crucially, the new-wave bag-in-box wine producers have set themselves up as the antithesis of almost every aspect of cask’s cheap, generic, disposable and even harmful associations.
For Marcus Radny of Gonzo Vino – as for the other producers I spoke to – sustainability is a primary motivation behind putting wine into boxes rather than bottles.
‘If you compare the environmental credentials of wine in bags with wine in bottles the differences are staggering’, says Radny. ‘There’s an 86% reduction in carbon footprint, for example, and a 97% reduction in post-consumer waste by moving to cask.’
This stark contrast was brought home to the winemaker when he secured 24 tonnes of grapes leading up to the 2021 vintage (a jump from just three tonnes the year before – now heading for 40 tonnes in 2022). He calculated the quantity of ‘dry goods’ he would need if he was going to package this much wine in glass – all the bottles and capsules and labels and cartons, etc – and compared it with what he in fact ordered to package his three-litre casks.
‘It all arrived on four pallets’, he says. ‘And cost about AU$7,000. Compared to about 26 pallets of bottles and stuff, that would have cost me over AU$35,000. It’s amazing.’
Unlike the generic, non-varietal goon of old, made from high-cropping grapes sourced from countless nameless growers across Australia’s inland irrigated regions, this new generation of cask wines makes a concerted effort to communicate the specifics of people and place.
Con-Greg Grigoriou of the Delinquente Wine Co, for example, has a long-standing relationship with the Bassham family, who grow Italian, Spanish and Portuguese varieties in their certified-organic vineyard at Barmera in South Australia’s Riverland, and he acknowledges this in the promotion of his wines. He also acknowledges the traditional owners of the land on which the grapes were grown – something that would have been inconceivable on the label of a cask wine just a few years ago.
For Sacha Imrie and her partner and co-creator of Hey Tomorrow, Shane Barrett, another strong motivation for developing a modern cask wine brand was the desire to drink more sensibly.
The idea for the brand came during the long 2020 lockdowns, when Imrie and Barrett were isolating at home. Sacha was expecting a baby and as a result was barely drinking. After tipping yet another bottle of half-finished good wine down the sink, the couple figured that if they were able to get equally good wine in cask, it wouldn’t need go to waste after they’d tried just a glass or two.
‘We realised casks could be a powerful tool to help people drink less’, Barrett told me when the wines were launched. ‘It’s not an obvious association. But people are drinking less these days – and at the same time want to drink higher quality.’
That certainly seems to be the case. Rather than baulk at the price Hey Tomorrow charge for their two-litre casks (AU$60 for an excellent Syrahmi Shiraz from Heathcote, for example – compared with the mere AU$13 you’d pay for a two-litre cask of Winesmiths Shiraz from Yalumba, long considered on the ‘posh’ side of the goon spectrum) customers are asking for even better wine in a bag in a box.
‘The feedback we’ve got from people is that they’d be happy to pay more for something with even more detail’, says Imrie.
High quality, detailed, varietal, single vineyard, sustainable and consumed in moderation? It’s cask wine completely re-imagined.