Last month, I wrote about Chardonnay, some of it in boxes, and the main response I got from readers was, "What about boxes of red wine?"
You ask, we deliver. Well, not literally. You'll have to go to the store yourself to pick up any of this week's recommended bargain wines. But if you're a Merlot fan, it'll be worth the trip.
Despite flat sales growth, Merlot is still America's favorite red varietal, and second-favorite wine overall, after Chardonnay.
Merlot sales in large U.S. food stores actually dropped 0.2 percent over the last year, according to ACNielsen, while overall table wine sales climbed 3.3 percent. But Americans still bought about 60 percent more Merlot than Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel (not the pink kind) combined.
Bowing to the market, I tasted 35 bargain-priced Merlots from eight countries recently; these were the best 10 wines.
My very favorite came in a box. The nonvintage (NV) Black Box Wines Sonoma County Merlot ($24 for 3 liters) is an outstanding wine for this price range; a true bargain superstar. While $24 may not seem cheap, consider that the box holds the equivalent of four standard 750 ml bottles. This wine is both fruit-forward and complex, with flavors and aromas of black and red berries, a floral note and a measured touch of oak. The fruit tastes more red than black on the medium-long finish. Plenty of $24 bottles of Merlot aren't as good as this.
I also liked the 2003 Black Box Wines California Merlot ($18 for 3 liters), which was earthier and a bit sweeter than the Sonoma County version.
The winery's Web site, blackboxwines.com, has a nice summation of some of the advantages of boxed wines, including the fact that the wine can stay drinkable up to four weeks after opening because it's contained in a vacuum pack inside the box which deflates each time you draw a glass. The site also answers that ever-popular question "Where can I buy this wine?" with a search bar that lists California stores in locations from Alameda to Yuba City.
Wine in a box is more an accepted part of daily life in Australia than in the United States, so it's no surprise to find a good boxed Aussie Merlot. The 2004 Banrock Station South Eastern Australia Merlot ($18 for 3-liter) is simple but easy to drink, with a smooth, mild blackberry flavor.
In sampling boxed wines, one thing I keep discovering is that for whatever reason, they often taste different than the bottled versions.
Case in point: The 2004 Delicato Family Vineyards California Merlot ($7) in a bottle tastes of slightly sweet red fruit -- strawberries and red currant. In contrast, the 2004 Delicato Family Vineyards California Merlot ($18 for 3-liter box) is much oakier and more tannic, with flavors of blackberry and wood and decent acidity.
Delicato also owns the Monterey-based Monterra label. The 2004 Monterra Monterey County Merlot ($9) in a bottle offers sweet cherry flavors with oak and slightly gripping tannins; a simple but decent wine.
I tasted some other boxed Merlots, but they didn't make the cut, and our Wine section policy is to not write about wines we don't like. Fortunately, I found plenty of good Merlots in bottles to recommend.
The 2004 Fusee California Merlot ($6), from Sonoma negociant Don Sebastiani & Sons, is my second-favorite wine on this week's list. It definitely shows the effects of oak, with flavors and aromas of blackberry, cedar and lots of vanilla, but it's a whole lot of bold flavor for less than the price of a matinee movie ticket.
California's McManis Family Vineyards caused a stir in Europe recently when winemaker Jeff Runquist admitted to Agence France-Press that he uses oak staves and nylon mesh "tea bags" of oak chips to flavor his wines, rather than the traditional practice of aging them in barrels. The use of oak chips was at the heart of a recent wine trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, in which Europe basically caved to American negotiators and recognized the technique as legitimate. Runquist's unapologetic admission gave European wineries a person to criticize, rather than a method.
To which I say, hey, whaddya expect for $10? Sure, I'd rather drink a hand-harvested, barrel-fermented wine than a factory-processed, flavor-manipulated wine. But I'd also expect to pay $18 or more for it, and many people can't afford to spend that every night. Plenty of other wineries competing in this price range are doing what McManis is; I commend Runquist for his honesty.
Moreover, now I understand why all McManis Family Vineyards wines taste similar, regardless of grape variety. At least they're onto a formula that works. The 2004 McManis Family Vineyards California Merlot ($10) is like most of the Ripon winery's red wines: rich, enticing aromas and flavors of cherry and vanilla. Those of you who decry the international style of winemaking, avoid it. But for people who just want a delicious wine at a good price, it delivers. And McManis is hardly corporate; this is a family-owned, family-run winery competing with the big guys by using the same tools.
Speaking of the big guys, it's easy for longtime enophiles to make fun of Constellation's silly critter label 3 blind moose, but the world's largest wine company is doing the industry a service by wooing young drinkers away from beer and sweet cocktails with these easy-to-drink, slightly sweet, entry-level wines. The 2003 3 blind moose California Merlot ($10) is typically simple but drinkable, with flavors and aromas of cherry, cherry candy and red currant.
You don't expect to see Merlot from Italy, but the huge American market for the varietal has driven growers there to plant it, and the 2004 La Francesca Delle Venezie Merlot ($7), with a cherry flavor and slight herbaceousness, shows it can be a decent value.
Once you start bowing to the market, it's hard to know when to stop. I could decry the internationalization of Italian wine, as the country makes so many wonderful varietals of its own that it has no need for Merlot.
But if Europeans have to live with American oak chips, Americans should accept Merlots from Italy -- until Merlot sales go from "flat" to "plummeting." Unless there's a sequel to "Sideways," Merlot will probably stay America's favorite red wine for a while. We might as well pick the good ones -- even if they come in a box.
I love Gray's reviews. He appreciates the place affordable wines have in the world, and has no "box" phobia.