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Backpacker Magazine – Online Exclusive

Backcountry Bartender: Box Wine Test

Box wine is back in a big--and quaffable-- way. Here are our favorites for the trail.

by: Crystal Sagan

Box wine at its best. (Crystal Sagan)
Box wine at its best. (Crystal Sagan)

Backpacking with wine has always been questionable--a heavy glass bottle doesn’t exactly scream ultralight. Even so, there still exist backpacking wine enthusiasts (a small but brave group of individuals) willing to forego the chore of carrying extra weight into the backcountry for the sake of sipping the finest Cote d’Or on a 5-day venture through the Pacific Northwest. 

Although we applaud the tenacity of these brave souls, we‘re here to tell them  things are about to get lighter-- box wine is better than ever and back on the connoisseur’s menu.

It’s been a rough ride for box wine since its inception in the mid-sixties. A cheap and, for the most part, tasteless stigma has carried over the last few decades, making the current plight of new-age box wines an uphill battle. While there are still a few lesser caliber Franzia-type staples around in the box wine industry, there are many up-and-coming attractive freshman on the block.

Most box wine comes in a three-liter plastic bladder (equivalent to 4 bottles) inside a cardboard box. Ditch the cardboard box and you have a nearly weightless vessel in which to transport your wine. Because oxygen can’t reach the liquid retained in the vessel, ‘opened’ wine stays fresh for weeks if not a month.  If 3 liters of wine is too much for what you will need on your trip, plan accordingly.

We sat down with rock-star sommelier David Miller in Boulder, Colorado, to get the lowdown on the finest cardboard carry-withs. 

Black Box Malbec, 2008- From Mendoza, Argentina, this spicy, leathery, and rustic wine is a perfect match for the outdoors, and our favorite in the lineup. With an earthy nose, the medium and slightly dry body yearns to be paired with Southwest Jambalaya.,  $24

Bota Box Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008- This medium bodied California-born wine is simple and fruity. A nose of dark berries and vanilla proceeds a palate featuring a hint of oak to compliment the berries. A great backcountry pair for Moroccan Fish, $20

Bota Box Pino Grigio, 2009-
Light, crisp, and clean, this California wine is perfect after a big mile day on the trail. Citrus with a hint of candy on the nose, followed by a more intense crisp citrus, hint of ginger and a light mineral flavor on the palate. Pair with light dishes like Salmon-Studded Spaghetti., $20

French Rabbit Pino Noir, 2008- This easy drinking village wine from the south of France is very light bodied, with a nose of dark cherries and leather. On the palate, a subtle earthiness coupled with hints of dark berries. A great accompaniment to Columbian Arepas., $10 (1 liter Tetra Pak*, about 7 glasses)

Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay, 2008- Apple, oak, and tropical fruits are at the forefront of the nose for this California Chardonnay. Very well-balanced, with a touch of apple and citrus on the palate followed by a clean citrus finish. Pair with Smoked Salmon Pasta.,  $18 

For the Naysayer:
Still not sold on box wines? Try the Platy Preserve wine preservation system. Extend the life of an unfinished bottle of wine at home (minimize wine contact with oxygen by squeezing excess air out before capping), or transfer your favorite glass-bottled wine to the BPA-free bladder for an overnight trip., $10, Holds 750ml

*Some companies are now offering wine in Tetra Paks, a product made from recycled materials, but the plastic coated paper is not necessarily recyclable in all areas (tricky, I know). Squeeze excess air from package when re-sealing to preserve wine.

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kyle D
Mar 31, 2011

Take your empty wine bladder and inflate, wrap in fleece and you have an ultra light wieght camp pillow!

Dec 31, 2010

I take 5 L Almanden boxes canoe camping. Almanden varieties are a cut above the usual 5L brands. Mountain Burgundy is my favorite.

Doug C.
Nov 20, 2010

I have tried the Platy wine preserver and it is the ONLY system I have found that works in preserving wine. My wife does not drink and I cannot finish a bottle on my own and I have tried all of the options. Try Platy and you will be impressed.

Eric Moon
Nov 20, 2010

For years I've simply poured the cheapest wine available into an empty plastic bottle. The bottle is recyclable, used again for water/wine/beer (that works too) or a piss bottle when "trapped" in a snuggy sleeping bag. As cabin crew, I find the malbec variety to have the strongest taste at 8,000ft cabin altitude. Not well known, but we lose about 30% of our taste at such altitude and higher, thus your perceived bland airplane food is actually quite spicy on the ground. The same goes for wine when camping out on the high ground.

Nov 19, 2010

You may find over time why explorers kept smallish bottles of high-proof spirits instead of gallons of heavy wine (that is mostly water). Vodka (or your favorite libation) and the correct dry drink mix plus filtered water is a heck of a lot easier, if even less elegant than boxed wine...if that's possible. It also makes an excellent antiseptic and a passable fire starter.

Patel V
Nov 19, 2010

Another tip - at camp - secure your three-liter plastic wine bladder in a nearby cold running stream = natures refrigerator. A cold glass of white wine in the backcountry is pure heaven. Take a steak for day one with the backpack fridge found here:

Patel V
Nov 19, 2010

Another tip - at camp - secure your three-liter plastic wine bladder in a nearby cold running stream = natures refrigerator. A cold glass of white wine in the backcountry is pure heaven. Take a steak for day one with the backpack fridge found here:

Nov 19, 2010

For day hikes and overnights there is a good selection of mini soft sided wine "bottles" that hold about 3 glasses ea. I tote along as many as I need for short trips.

Joe Flowers
Nov 19, 2010

Those empty bags are sometimes re-usable. You can clean them with denture cleaner and fill 'em up with water for car camping (or more wine!)

Brian Lang
Nov 19, 2010

Or, you could simply pour your 750ml wine into a Nalgene bottle - but that really only works for the first night's wine though.

A couple of years ago, I packed in a 1L box of wine to Cape Scott (Vancouver Island). Another member of our group also packed in 1L. That was enough for everyone in the group to have a glass with dinner for two nights.

On the flip side is the (non-)recyclable aspect of tetra paks. They're devilishly difficult to recycle.


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