Sunday, October 29, 2006

The Seattle Times Wine Advisor - Think Inside the Box

Paul Gregutt writes the weekly wine column in the Seattle Times. Last March he took a look at boxed wine in general, and tried several wines, a number of which were in 3 liter bag-in-box packaging. Not much in the way of very specific reviews here, but some general recommendations.

Go ahead — think inside the box
By Paul Gregutt
Special to the Seattle Times

Just two years ago, when I first wrote about box (or cask) wines, they were a curiosity at best.

There were very few available, and only the early innovators among the wine-drinking crowd bothered to give them a look. Like screwcaps, which were also being introduced at the time, box wines suffered from a decades-long history of ill repute. Only cheap, generic plonk came in such packaging, scoffed serious wine drinkers. And with good reason.

But this is no longer true. Yes, you still can find jug wines in screwcaps, some decent, some not so good. And yes, there are still the big (5-liter) boxes, filled with that same, bland brand of Chateau Fermented Whatever from the Central Valley's sea of vineyards. But the new generation of boxes, many in a more convenient 3-liter (four-bottle) size, hold vintage-dated, premium varietal wines.

There are many advantages to purchasing your everyday wines in this format.

Convenience is a big factor. Boxes are the perfect solution for boats, campers or virtually any outdoor setting. They are disposable; unbreakable; easy to stack, store and carry; and they require no corkscrew to open. Once chilled, they hold their temperature longer than bottles and offer extra protection from the damaging rays of the sun.

Most boxes are stamped with a "packaged on" or "drink by" date, a useful guarantee of freshness. They have explicit instructions (on the bottom of the box) for opening, and there is nothing cheap or cheesy about the functionality of the airtight bag or the dripless spout. Because the bag collapses as it is emptied, the wine is never exposed to air. Freshness is guaranteed for a month or more. You can enjoy a small glass with dinner, and it will be as fresh on day 30 as it was on day one.

Because they may be recycled, boxes are easy on the environment. The wineries also make a convincing claim that far less fuel is consumed during shipping because box wines weigh far less than comparable quantities of bottles.

Best of all, you can now find both white and red box wines from all over the world, many quite pleasantly drinkable, and costing just $3-$4 for the equivalent of a regular bottle.

Along with the standard 3-liter boxes, smaller packages (called Tetrapaks) are becoming more widely available. Most of these hold 1 liter (an extra third of a regular bottle) and are shaped like a juice carton, complete with a plastic screwcap. Unlike the bigger boxes, they do not have a self-collapsing inner pouch; however, if you want just a glass of wine, you can (very carefully!) squeeze the air out of your Tetrapak, and it will keep the wine reasonably well for several days.

Box wines and wines in Tetrapaks are sold mostly in supermarkets rather than dedicated wine shops and have particular appeal to women and younger consumers who are less interested in stodgy "tradition" and more willing to try something new. Along those lines, wineries keep looking for the perfect single-serving package, trying everything from tiny little bottles to cans to cartons.

An Italian brand, Tavernello, is offering two of its wines in 250-ml cartons, which are sold three to a package (one brick-sized package equals a regular bottle of wine). Tavernello claims to be the world's fourth best-selling table-wine brand but has not been seen in the U.S. until very recently. It offers pinot grigio and merlot in the single-serving size, and adds trebbiano, sangiovese and Nero d'Avola to its 1-liter lineup. Warning: The little boxes open with a foil pull-tab that is a bit tricky. I suggest you open your first box or two over the sink, just to be safe.

Tavernello and the other European box wines I've tasted remind me (in a good way) of the simple wines you will find served by the carafe in little bistros or tavernas around the continent. Fresh, young and bracing, they generally have around 12 percent alcohol, fairly austere tannins (in the reds) and are made to be drunk chilled and with food.

If you are looking for more ripe, round, slightly sweet wines, you will want to explore the offerings from California and Australia.

Here's a roundup of some of the best box and Tetrapak wines now available:

Italy, France

Tavernello: The trebbiano, though quite light, outshone the rather watery pinot grigio. I liked it for its delicate flavors of grapefruit and its finishing hint of almond. All three Tavernello reds were pleasant drinking. The Nero d'Avola had more earth, tannin and berry flavors, with a tongue-drying finish. In the 1-liter packages, these wines sell for $7-$8; the three-packs of the smaller cartons sell for $6-$7.

French Rabbit: Also packaged in a 1-liter size, these wines from the south of France are classic bistro beverages. Get yourself a simple glass carafe (or pichet) and serve them that way along with a picnic spread of cheeses, smoked meats and olives; you can pretend for an hour or so that you are vacationing in Provence. The chardonnay is crisp, lively and shows refreshing citrus and melon flavors. The merlot is insubstantial, but the cabernet sauvignon seems like an honest, no-frills, lightly herbal, very French style of farmer's market red. There is also a pinot noir, which I have not tasted. All four sell for $9 -$10.

Chateau des Alouettes: It's a bit startling to see a box with a Chateau labeling, but this rustic, substantial red from the south of France will please those who are fond of rough-and-ready syrah/grenache blends. It's got more going on than most box wines, with scents that offer floral, mineral and spicy notes. It sells for around $20 in the 3-liter package.

California, Washington

Delicato: It's popular "Bota Box" ($17) comes in five varietals: pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and shiraz. Sweet, simple and fruity, they are about as quaffable as wines can be.

Black Box: Two different chardonnays, two merlots, a cabernet and a shiraz, packaged in an easy-to-spot (you guessed it!) black box and selling for $20-$25: a bit higher than the competition but still in the five-buck-chuck category (OK, I made that category up). The extra flavor justifies the extra cost.

Avery Lane: A 3-liter Washington chardonnay that tastes the way you would hope, with plenty of spicy fruit flavors of pineapple, citrus, peaches and apples. It sells for $18.


Hardys: This brand leader does chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and, of course, shiraz in the box, all selling for around $17. Forward, grapey reds and soft, sweet, tropical chardonnay make this a surefire choice for parties.

Tindindi: Next month, Tindindi will offer a tropical, minty chardonnay and a grapey young shiraz in cask packaging. A cabernet sauvignon, cabernet-merlot and a rosé are also in the works.

Pick of the week
Casarsa 2004 Pinot Grigio/Pinot Blanc; $10 (for 3-liter cask).

This well-known Italian brand offers both a merlot and a pinot grigio/pinot blanc in the 3-liter cask. The white blend is particularly nice, soft and delicate, with a hint of almond. At $10 (for four bottles' worth of wine!), it is a fine value. (Young's Columbia).

The Seattle Times: Food & wine: Go ahead — think inside the box

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Boxed Wine Skepticism

Thursday's Tahlequah Daily Press featured an article about the boxed wine phenomenon. Good article, but I am surprised that someone who works in a liquor store is so poorly informed as to subscribe to the myth that a bottle of red wine will "breathe" if you simply pull the cork.

The fact is, exposing less than one square inch of wine surface in the neck of the bottle accomplishes next to nothing. As I have said before, (in the Breathe Easy post) this is what decanters are for. Let it breathe in the glass, or let it breathe in a decanter. But breathe in the bottle? Sorry, just ain't happening. Anyway, it is a good article, so read on!

Wine aficionados skeptical about boxed concoction

By Teddye Snell

TAHLEQUAH, Okla. — So you think you’re a wine connoisseur?

You subscribe to “Wine Spectator,” you have tasting parties and you certainly know a Merlot from a Pinot Noir. But do you buy boxed wines?

Stop laughing. Some of the best-selling wines no longer come with corks. They come with spigots and plastic bladders.

Boxed wine has been around for years, but traditionally it was synonymous with sticky sweetness, cheap thrills and bad hangovers.

According to a report in the Detroit News, the latest “bag in a box” wines – so-called because of the wine-filled bladder that comes inside a box – have come a long way. They’re not the sweet pink mystery wines Americans are conditioned to seeing in a box.

In fact, they aren’t even called box wines anymore. The preferred name is “cask” wines. Cask wines are being made by top producers, with premium grape varieties – including Syrah and Pinot Grigio – and are vintage-dated.

Ryan Lester, clerk at Mary’s Liquors, has reservations about the trend.

“If you’ll look, all boxed wines come with dates on them,” said Lester. “Franzia has dates on its boxes, but it’s certainly not a vintage date. Others, such as Black Box and Corbett Canyon, have vintage dates.”

The plastic bladders and spigots boxed wines feature keep air out, which prevents oxidation and extends the shelf life. That’s great, if you enjoy Chablis and Blush wines.

“With the plastic liner [which holds the product in a casked wine], red wine fans can’t open a bottle and let it breathe properly,” Lester said. “I personally prefer red wines, and you can’t tell me a plastic liner allows that part of the process [breathing] to happen.”

Connie Jolliff, co-owner of J&J Liquors, said the industry has a recommendation for red wine fans. “I understand you’re to pour a glass of red casked wine and let it breathe from the glass,” said Jolliff. “Of course, the proper glass is required.”

Each wine, be it Cabernet-Sauvignon, Merlot or Chablis, has a different glass assigned to it. According to Jolliff, the size of the mouth of the glass is very important, as it allows the wine to hit the tongue in different ways.

An ACNielsen report indicated sales of premium-priced, 3-liter boxed wines are increasing faster than any other segment in the industry. Jon Fredrikson, a San Francisco Bay area consultant, told the Associated Press convenience for a fast-paced lifestyle may have something to do with boxed wine’s growth in popularity.

“The advantage of boxed wines is just one of extreme convenience,” said Fredrikson. “Once they’re open, it’s just so easy to draw a nice glass of wine. It’s ideal for working couples, people who are kind of passing in the night.”

Could this be the death of the temperature-controlled wine cellar whose owners treat each bottle like a newborn child?

That’s certainly not yet the case in the United States, but looking at European countries and Australia, you might say the future is now. According to the United Kingdom’s Decanter magazine, Norway’s boxed wine sales now exceed 40 percent of its total wine sales; Sweden is experiencing 22 percent annual growth in boxed wine sales, with 65 percent of all wines sold in the summer packaged in boxes. In Australia, 52 percent of the wine sold is in boxes.

“Cask wines are the hottest trend in Australia and the U.K.,” said Marc Jonna, national wine buyer for Whole Foods Market, with 145 stores in the United States and one in Canada.

While it may be a growing trend in other parts of the country, Okies still seem to like their wines bottled.

“We haven’t had any requests for the casked wines just yet,” said Jolliff. “I suppose mostly because people are slow to change, that and the casked wines are more costly. Customers see boxed wine and expect it to come with the older, lesser-quality wine price. That said, I do see them [casked wines] becoming the latest trend in the industry.”

A customer in Jolliff’s store let her purchases speak for themselves. She had brought several bottles of wine – the kind with corks – to the counter.

When asked if she’d ever purchase a boxed wine, her response was a vehement, “Never.”

Mary’s carries a variety of casked wines, including Black Box, Corbett Canyon, Delicato and Franzia.

“Black Box is probably the most well-known upscale boxed wine,” said Lester. “It’s even had a rating in ‘Wine Spectator,’ which says something. I’m just not completely convinced.”

Teddye Snell writes for the Tahlequah (Okla.) Daily Press.

The Edmond Sun, Edmond, OK - Wine aficionados skeptical about boxed concoction

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