Sunday, March 16, 2008

Evolution of the Wine Box

From the Times Herald-Record of the Huson Valley, New York:

Tastings: the evolution of the wine box
August 26, 2007

Summer may be slipping away, but that doesn't mean that the party will be ending any time soon.

There are plenty of Labor Day barbecues, tailgating picnics and game nights ahead.

Beer, of course, is often the beverage of choice at these gatherings. But a new generation of boxed wines now rivals beer's portability and affordability, making it a good choice for parties.

But we're not talking about that big crate of chablis your parents used to keep in the fridge. These wines are getting better, and there's more to choose from.

The most common size of wine in a box is 5 liters — that's almost seven regular bottles of wine — but 1- and 3-liter "casks" have also become popular. And many promise to keep well for weeks after opening.

The big player in the field is the Wine Group, based in San Francisco, which is the world's third-biggest wine company by volume thanks to its ubiquitous Franzia boxed wines.

"Denying the quality of some box wines will soon be like denying the quality of screw caps," says Carl Zatz, owner of Enthusiastic Spirits and Wine Shop. "They're coming and they'll be here to stay."

His shop features two "great" boxed wines, which he notes are "both perfect for picnics or the chaos of a big family barbecue."

Zatz's first suggestion is Wooloomooloo Red Blend from South Eastern Australia (1 liter/$8.99). "It's a bold blend of cabernet sauvignon, shiraz and grenache. It's juicy and sappy and great with grilling."

He also really likes the company's "quaffable" chardonnay.

Zatz is also recommending wines from Trove in California, which is available bottled or in 3-liter boxes ($19.99).

"The 2004 cabernet sauvignon is full-bodied, almost rustic with lots of fruit," Zatz says. "(And) the 2005 chardonnay is medium-bodied with a little bit of oak. It's a good all-purpose wine that will last in your fridge for weeks. We had these two out for tastings for nearly a month. They stayed fresh and tasty to the end."

Even Carlo Rossi, long available in jugs, is being offered in a 5-liter box.

Available nationwide beginning Sept. 1, four varietals — chardonnay, white zinfandel, merlot and cabernet sauvignon — will retail at about $13.99.

"The easy-pour spout makes for effortless entertaining and quick refills," says spokeswoman Christine Reardon.

Dorothy J. Gaiter and John Brecher, wine critics for The Wall Street Journal, recently tasted the 3-liter boxes from the Wine Group's FishEye brand. Wine Group expects to sell about a million 9-liter cases of FishEye this year, including both boxes and bottles. According to ACNielsen, sales of premium 3-liter box wines rose 43.4 percent by volume for the 52-week period ending April 7.

Gaiter and Brecher decided to see how the FishEye Shiraz would hold up after opening and bought seven boxes (about $16). They opened one box every week for six weeks and emptied about a sixth of the contents. Then they tasted them all against a newly opened box. (While FishEye doesn't say the boxes need to be refrigerated, they did because they say simple wines, even the shiraz, are better with a chill.) When it was first opened, they found the shiraz to be tasty — "soft and pleasant, with integrated acidity and nice fruit." Then they put all the boxes on a table and started tasting.

"None of them was obviously oxidized," they found. "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. It turned out that our favorite 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." So, the bottom line: The wine really does keep for six weeks.

It has its ups and downs in your refrigerator, but it will keep fine. That said, the FishEye Shiraz, at the equivalent of $4 a bottle, is a perfectly nice wine for a party.

The Wall Street Journal contributed to this report

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Tastings: The evolution of the wine box - - The Times Herald Record

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