Box wine is getting better all the time
Carol Emert, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, December 4, 2003
In the American collective conscience, wine sold in a box isn't actually wine, it's a separate category referred to as "box wine."
"Box wine" comes in a box, as distinct from "wine," which is something you'd actually want to drink and which comes in just one kind of container -- a "bottle."
It doesn't have to be that way. The holiday season is the perfect time to throw out old prejudices and give box wine a try. That's particularly true now, as several producers have, as predicted by The Chronicle ("Inside the box, " May 15), recently released dry premium wines -- standard varietals, no funny colors -- in a box.
Box wines are popular in Australia and Europe, where premium wine has long been available in cardboard. The Australian brand Hardys, for example, has been sold in the United States for many years, but just last year the company introduced boxes under the name Hardys Stamp of Australia. In its native country, half of Hardys' wine is sold in a box, or cask, as they call it Down Under.
In several cases, including Hardys Stamp, the boxes hold exactly the same juice as bottles sitting nearby on the supermarket shelf. But there are two key differences: The box wines cost less because the packaging is cheaper. And boxes, which are lined with a plastic vacuum-sealed bag, stay fresh much longer after opening -- about a month, compared to just a day or so for many bottles.
The new premium boxes hold 3 liters of wine, the equivalent of four bottles, while traditional box wines hold 5 liters. Several of the newbies come in cool, monochromatic packaging to look nice for your party. They retail for $10 to $36, the equivalent of $2.50 to $9 per bottle.
I tasted 31 box wines for this column, mostly the new premium varietal wines, but for comparison I threw in five old-style box wines by Franzia, Almaden and Peter Vella ($6 to $10) that happened to be in The Chronicle cellar.
Only two of the box wines, both the old-fashioned types, were awful. Nine were good enough that I would serve them to guests.
Most of the others weren't horrible, just middling -- a trait found in many bottled wines at this price point. Two recurring problems were sour fruit, as if the grapes had been harvested prematurely, and a thin texture that took all the fun away from a couple of nicely flavored wines. I didn't detect any plastic flavors from the packaging.
Good enough for Turkey
I liked the box wines so well that I served one of my favorites for Thanksgiving dinner (in a decanter -- nobody guessed that a box was involved) and took others on a recent weekend trip with friends. One fellow accused me of being tacky when he saw the boxes, but I suppose (sniff) that's the hazard of being a trendsetter.
One big advantage: Packing and transporting the boxes was much easier than dealing with glass bottles, with no concern about leaks or breakage.
Sales of premium box wines remain low -- in the hundreds of thousands per year -- but are growing fast and getting good distribution in independent stores and chains like Beverages & more, Safeway, Albertsons, Whole Foods and Longs Drugs. The Wine Cube is sold only at Target. Le Cask Zinfandel is in limited distribution in the Bay Area currently, but can be mail ordered (lecask.com, see Uncorked this page.)
As with bottled wines, a higher price tag and classy demeanor don't necessarily equate to quality.
The most expensive brand, Blackburn, by Sonoma Hill Winery, sports a snazzy gold box, a Sonoma County appellation and a retail price of $36. But the 2002 Chardonnay was just plain sour. The 2001 Merlot and 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon both displayed promising noses, but were disappointingly thin on the palate.
Target's Wine Cube ($16) was another disappointment. The Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay and Merlot, made by Trinchero Winery, all fell short in the fruit department.
My favorite white wine from the tasting was the 2003 Banrock Station South Eastern Australia Chardonnay ($16), which is full of green apple, lemon and pear, rounded out with a good dose of butter and a hint of nutmeg. The deep-gold-colored 2002 Black Box Napa Valley Chardonnay will please lovers of very oaky Chardonnay. It smells of wood and butter and tastes like a carameled Golden Delicious apple.
The only Zinfandel offered by the box is Lodi's spicy Le Cask Old Vine California Zinfandel ($24 retail, $22 mail order). It's a medium-bodied Zin with a nose of dried cherries, stewed fruit and vanilla. Le Cask's even tannins and 14.5 percent alcohol do a good job balancing its bright cherry/berry fruit.
Zin is a favorite holiday wine for me; this one would go well with the melange of sweet and savory flavors typical of most holiday spreads.
Two spicy Syrahs also promise to stand up to le holiday buffet. The 2002 Banrock Station South Eastern Australia Shiraz ($16) is a fun wine with lots happening: a nose of black licorice, dark fruit, spice and earth, accompanying candylike flavors of raspberry, cassis and cherry-vanilla soda-pop.
The 2002 Delicato California Shiraz ($18) is full on the palate and busy, with wide-ranging aromas of toast, cherry, mushroom and black olive. Flavorwise, it's a winning combination of cherry and raspberry, cinnamon and a hint of bittersweet chocolate. It's a well-made wine with an extended finish.
Merlot is not a varietal that I typically go out of my way to drink, but nearly half of the box wines I liked were Merlots. They were surprisingly rich and balanced, with enough tannin to serve with meat and other rich foods. All displayed good varietal character.
The 2003 Hardys South Eastern Australia Merlot ($16) has a strong, earthy, green bell-pepper nose with a hint of white pepper and coffee. The finish is dry, with strong flavors of coffee and caramel.
The 2001 Corbett Canyon California Merlot ($10) is exceptionally good for the price. It displays a cherry-and-cigar nose along with tasty cherry, plum and cranberry on the palate. The long finish combines bright plum with caramel.
The 2000 Black Box Sonoma County Merlot ($25) is a rich and interesting wine with aromas of roasted green pepper and black pepper. Flavors include thyme, oregano, roasted red pepper and leather. It is consistently flavorful and full throughout.
The 2001 Delicato California Merlot ($18) sports a light nose of toasted marshmallow, banana, leather and berry. Mouth-filling cranberry and dried cherry flavors are balanced nicely by dry tannins.
The traditional, 5-liter box wines ranged from surprisingly good to shockingly bad. I was most impressed with Almaden's Cabernet Sauvignon ($10), which tasted and smelled like Cab, although it was very, very light.
The worst was Peter Vella's white Grenache, a wine that I will not taste again without hazard pay. My tasting notes say it best: "Ick. Skunky odor with port underneath. Cat food and gasoline. Cloying flavors. Oooooh, icky cat food finish. I MUST BRUSH."
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Box wine has been getting better for a while
Although this article is from way back in 2003, it had lots of good tasting notes by Carol Emert: