Sunday, June 17, 2007

How Well Does It Keep - Really

Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher, wine writers for the Wall Street Journal, had a great article yesterday on a little boxed wine experiment they conducted. In Boxed Wines Face The Six-Week Challenge, we learn the answer to the question they posed - does boxed wine really last for weeks after opening? They designed a blind tasting experiment using FishEye wines, and the results are VERY surprising!
FishEye claims -- and other boxed wines make similar claims -- that its wines will keep well for six weeks after opening because the plastic bag inside the box collapses and therefore keeps out air. We decided to test the claim. We bought seven boxes of FishEye Chardonnay (vintage 2005, "best when consumed before Nov. 6, 2007"). They cost $16 each, or about $4 per regular bottle. Our idea was that we would open one every week for six weeks and empty about a sixth of the contents. Then we'd taste the six boxes against a newly opened box six weeks later. We opened the first box, found the pour spout and tapped the bag. Then we tasted the Chardonnay and it was OK, but harsh. We decided that we couldn't very well perform our test with this wine because it didn't taste that good to us to begin with, so then we tried FishEye's 2006 Pinot Grigio, which was fairly pleasant and not too sweet (though it smelled and tasted more like Sauvignon Blanc), and its Shiraz, which was tasty -- "soft and pleasant, with integrated acidity and nice fruit." The Shiraz seemed perfect for our experiment. (All of the boxes cost $16.) While FishEye doesn't say the boxes need to be refrigerated, we did this because these simple wines, even the Shiraz, are better with a chill.

Over the next six weeks, we opened one box of Shiraz every Friday and poured out about one-sixth of all of them that were open. (The Shiraz was vintage 2004, "best when consumed before Dec. 1, 2007.") Because we had the Chardonnay anyway, we went ahead and conducted the experiment with those boxes, too. Soon, our refrigerators were groaning under the weight of boxed wines.

A Pleasant Surprise

At the end of the experiment, first we tasted the box of Pinot Grigio we'd tried weeks earlier. It was still pleasant, with some lemon, peach and kiwi. It tasted somewhat watery, but not at all oxidized. It didn't taste like it had been open for six weeks.

Then we put all of the boxes of Chardonnay and Shiraz on a table. We had noted on the bottom of the box when each was opened. We asked a friend to serve them so we wouldn't be able to tell which boxes were lightest and which were heaviest, and therefore we were able to taste the seven wines blind: from one open for six weeks to one just opened fresh.

The Chardonnays, on the whole, continued to taste pleasant enough but a bit harsh. Three smelled and tasted notably sulfuric. All tasted of pineapple -- sometimes sweet pineapple and sometimes watery pineapple. One was clearly the best. It tasted riper, fresher and cleaner than the rest. This turned out to be the newest box, the one we had just opened. But our second favorite was the wine we'd opened the third week of the experiment, and our third favorite was the very first we'd opened, all those weeks before. Overall, the boxes we opened first and last were the best; the boxes opened in the middle weeks were the ones that tasted and smelled less fresh. But none of the boxes tasted oxidized or obviously off. We've tried some wines by the glass at tony wine bars that tasted far more over the hill.

We sampled the Shirazes next. Once again, none of them was obviously oxidized. The difference among them was that a couple tasted vibrant and alive -- these were wines we would take to a picnic ourselves -- while others had the same basic tastes, but they'd lost life and seemed somewhat dull and flat. In any event, none of them tasted as sweet, alcoholic and heavy as many jug wines on the market and even many under-$20 wines in bottles.

When we checked the bottom of the boxes, it turned out that our favorite Shiraz had been opened in week No. 4 and our second favorite had been the very first cask we opened. Our third favorite was the freshest box. Once again, it appeared that the boxes from the fifth and sixth weeks -- those open for one week and two weeks -- were the most problematic. Call it a dumb period.

So, the bottom line: It's true. The wine really does keep for six weeks. It has its ups and downs in your refrigerator, but it will keep fine. Would we keep a box of wine in our refrigerator for six weeks? Well, no. Today, there are so many interesting, affordable wines on the shelves that we'd rather taste several wines than one wine in a big box. That said, the FishEye Shiraz, at the equivalent of $4 a bottle, is a perfectly nice wine for a party this summer -- and, yes, if you have any left over, you can keep it around until the dog days of summer without it turning hairy.

Tastings -

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