Friday, October 13, 2006

SF Chronicle Reviews Boxed Chardonnays

The San Francisco Chronicle has for years published great boxed wine reviews. I have been looking back over them, and I think I will revisit them one by one.

In the most recent, Volvo' Vino: Boxy, but good (on March 16, 2006), W. Blake Gray tasted thirty Chards in the bargain price bracket, and found ten 2004 and 2005 Chards worthy of comment. Three of the ten were in boxes. Which boxes got the thumbs-up?
  • 2005 Banrock Station SE Australia Chard (his second favorite of the ten).
  • 2004 Black Box Monterey Co. Chard.
  • 2004 Black Box Napa Valley Chard.

'Volvo' vino: Boxy, but good

Many great things come in boxes. Jack, for instance. Crayons. Chocolates. And of course, wine.

Now, don't shrink back like Pandora -- hear me out.

Boxes are popular in Europe and Australia for wines in the Bargain Wine price range because the format makes a lot of sense.

The three boxes o' wine I'm recommending this week are all in the bag-in-box style. The wine is contained in an airtight plastic bag that compresses each time you push on the spigot to draw a glass. This means that unlike with a bottle, the wine is not exposed to air, so it stays fresh much longer.
A former colleague claimed these types of box wines, once opened, would maintain their quality for a month in a refrigerator. I wish I could tell you I confirmed that claim, but wine doesn't last that long around my house.

Moreover, boxed wines have some financial advantages over bottles of wine. Boxes are cheaper and lighter than bottles, and easier to pack for shipping. When packaging costs less, wineries can spend more on the juice inside and still compete on price.

In fact, because the 3-liter boxes listed here contain the equivalent of four standard 750-ml bottles, it's not really competition -- not very often do I taste wines this good for under $5 a bottle, or $6 for Napa Valley Chardonnay.

Boxed wines have had slow acceptance in the U.S. market, mainly because of public perception that they're somehow lacking in class. Hey folks, Bargain Wine is Bargain Wine. We're not talking about single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignons that you want to age in your cellar for 10 years; we're talking about enjoyable everyday vino to go with dinner. Is Two Buck Chuck your entry into the exclusive Skull and Bones society (George "the other W." Bush and John Kerry are both members) just because it comes in glass?

You can buy Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in a box these days, but the varietal that makes the most sense of all is Chardonnay. Chardonnay is still America's favorite wine in U.S. food stores by a large margin, according to ACNielsen; it sells almost as much as numbers two and three, Merlot and White Zinfandel, combined.

The biggest drawback for wine in a box is that, unless you take it to a party, you have to be content with drinking the same wine every day until you drain it. That's another reason Chardonnay makes sense: I know from my e-mails that many Chardonnay drinkers are loyal to the grape.

After my rant, you might think the boxed wines on this week's list are there just because I have a rectangular fetish. Not true -- I tasted 30 Chardonnays in the bargain price range, and the 2005 Banrock Station South Eastern Australia Chardonnay ($18 for 3-liter box) was my second favorite overall, even before considering a per-bottle price less than half of most of the bottled wines. It's nicely balanced between lemon tartness and vanilla smoothness, making it both interesting to sip alone and complementary with herbed roast chicken.

So what's my favorite? At the risk of sounding too 20th-century, it's a wine in a bottle: the 2004 Reynolds Vineyards South Australia Chardonnay ($9). The initial flavors are of vanilla and butter; lemon takes over midpalate and lingers on the medium-long finish.

The 2004 Grayson Cellars Monterey Chardonnay ($10) is unique on this list because it offers a hint of mineral, along with tart initial lemon-lime flavor and vanilla on the midpalate. Good complexity and a medium-long finish for $10 are wonderful things.

The 2004 Meridian Santa Barbara County Chardonnay ($10) has more lime character than any other wine on this list, balanced with vanilla and butter on a medium-long finish. If it came in a box, it would be easy to drink day after day.

The two Black Box Wines on this list are very different, more because of winemaking style than the provenance of the grapes. The 2004 Black Box Wines Monterey County Chardonnay ($20 for 3-liter box) smells oaky, of vanilla and butter, but there's plenty of lemon fruit on the palate along with some butter and a little vanilla.

The 2004 Black Box Wines Napa Valley Chardonnay ($24 for 3-liter box) is for fans of oaky Chardonnays, with vanilla and butter aromas and flavors dominant. Skull and Bones would probably let you in with it: the box design is so stylish that I've had one on my desk for a year, and I'll bet those ex-Yale University rulers of the universe like their Chardonnays oaky.

If you like in-your-face flavors, pick up the 2004 Smashed Grapes California Chardonnay ($10), which cranks up the vibrancy of its lemon and vanilla taste until it's almost an extreme wine.

The large Australian producer Hardys makes Chardonnay for the U.S. market in both a box and a bottle; despite my box-worship, I have to report that the bottled version is better. The 2005 Hardys Nottage Hill South Eastern Australia Chardonnay ($9) is simple but decent, with flavors of lemon and vanilla and a medium-length finish.

The 2004 McManis Family Vineyards River Junction Chardonnay ($10) from a perennially good budget producer delivers rich aromas and flavors of ripe banana and vanilla with a hint of yellow plum.

It's hard to take a wine named 3 blind moose seriously -- weren't those the guys umpiring the U.S.-Japan baseball game earlier this week? -- but the 2004 3 blind moose California Chardonnay ($10) delivers flavors and aromas of lemon, cilantro, vanilla and white pepper. If you expect a "critter wine" to be straightforward and slightly sweet, these moose will surprise you with their sophistication. If only it came in a box.

'Volvo' vino: Boxy, but good

Thanks W. Blake Gray, and the SF Chronicle for pointing out that drinking "everyday vino" is not defacto declasse. Now drinking "everyday vino" on your wedding anniversary might be declasse (unless you're celebrating your wedding anniversary on the beach or at a backyard BBQ).

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