No one enjoys a nice glass of wine more than I do, and I don’t think I’m considered a “wine snob” by anyone with whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of sharing a bottle or two. I appreciate a fantastic, old Bordeaux at its peak as the treat that it is, but I am just as content sipping a little Chianti with a pepperoni pizza. Although some wines can certainly be considered works of art, albeit very tasty ones, most others play the important role of simply being a great beverage to have with whatever you happen to be eating.
Sometimes you want to listen to Bach; sometimes you just want to hear the Kinks. So when Theresa asked me if I’d like to do a tasting of boxed wines, I thought it would be a perfect way to sample what would probably be perfectly drinkable “beverage wines” in a different format from what I normally see. After all, it’s what’s inside the package that counts, not the package itself. I don’t hold it against a bottle when it has a screw top instead of a cork. At least with a screw top, you don’t have to worry about the wine inside being “corked” (though it may be “screwed.”) Granted, putting wine in a box, or actually a collapsible bag inside of a box, is a couple of more steps away from the traditional package, but it’s not without its advantages. When this system was first devised in the 1970s it was so that larger volumes of wine could be stored and transported in lighter, less breakable containers. Also, any wine left in the container would last longer because of the collapsible bladder, which would largely prevent it from coming into contact with oxygen. It should be noted that “bladder” is a term seldom used in the marketing of these wines.
For our tasting, Theresa and I picked a wide variety of boxed wines made from different varietals, from different countries, both old and new world. We assembled a tasting panel of professionals as well as amateurs in the best sense of the word. The panelists tasted the wines blind, being told only that they all had something in common. The goal was to taste the wines one at a time, discuss each in terms of their visual aspects, nose, body, taste and finish, and then give each an overall rating of 1 to 5, with 5 being great, and 1 being not-so-great. Bonus points, which were redeemable for nothing of any real value, were to be awarded to anyone who could figure out what the common thread all the wines shared might be. Last, but not least, we’d learn a little about what we’d all been missing by not previously exploring just what the wide world of wines in a box could offer. Overall, it seemed like a great way to kill a little time drinking wine among pleasant company.
We started (unbeknownst to the panel) with the Black Box Riesling from Washington State, Columbia Valley, 2009 ($18.99/3 liters.) It was pale straw, with an indistinct light and clean nose; medium body; a subtle taste of lemon, grapefruit and green apple with some residual sugar, with a medium-length but simple finish. Although Riesling is one of the most distinctive varietals, no one mentioned Riesling in their description. While nothing stood out as unpleasant, there was also nothing to encourage one to ask for more. It got an overall score of 2.7.
Next up was the Bota Box California Chardonnay, 2009 ($16.59/3 liters.) It was pale straw, with a lot of oak in the nose; medium body; on the palate there were generous amounts of oak and alcohol, but not much in the way of fruit or acid. The consensus was that this wine was out of balance with too much oak, too much alcohol, and not much else to speak of. Its overall score was 1.4.
After that was the French Rabbit Chardonnay from France ($9.99/liter.) It was oxidized, cooked, flawed. Trying to look beyond that, the panel found too much oak and not enough acid. Any fruit it may have once had was gone. We assumed it must have been mishandled at some point in its history. The score given to this particular box was 0.1.
Our next wine was the Franzia Australian Chardonnay ($12.99/5 liters.) Its color was light straw, and it had a floral nose with some minerality and hints of green apple; light body; its taste was diluted and flabby, lacking alcohol, but having a little bit of green apple. Overall, it was deemed muted and one-dimensional. Its score was 1.3.
Next was the Hardy’s Australian Chardonnay, 2009 ($15.99/3 liters.) It was medium yellow in color, with sandalwood and baking spices on the nose; medium body; on the palate were spicy pears and apples, with too much alcohol and oak, not much of a finish, but nice acidity. Its score was 1.9.
Our first red was the Franzia Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon ($12.99/5 liters.) It was light garnet in color, with our panel noting hints of blackberries, minerality and paint thinner on the nose. One of our tasters said it smelled, “like something my great grandmother used to wear.” It had a light body. On the palate, though diluted, were blueberries, blackberries and black pepper, with decent acidity. Its finish was medium in length, and simple in nature. Its score was 2.1.
Our next red was the Black Box Malbec from Argentina ($18.69/3 liters.) Its color was dark garnet, with a nice nose of cedar, Bordeaux-like pencil shavings, minerals and dark red fruit; medium body; on the palate were blueberries, cassis, soft tannins, decent acidity, a little too much alcohol, with a medium finish. The panel thought, unanimously, that this was the big winner so far. They also all agreed that it wasn’t that powerful a statement. Its score was 3.
After that came the French Rabbit Cabernet Sauvignon from France ($9.99/liter.) It was a repeat of the French Rabbit Chardonnay, but red. Words used to describe it were: oxidized, cooked raisins, stinky, flawed, undrinkable. Again, we could only assume that somewhere, something went wrong with this box of wine. Score: 0.1. (In case anyone is wondering, all of the wines for this tasting were purchased from a reputable wine retailer about a week before and handled with the same care that we would expend on even the finest of wines.)
Next was the Hardy’s Australian Shiraz, 2007 ($15.99/3 liters.) This wine, too, had issues. It was dark red in color, with browning at the rim. Comments included: oxidized, stewed, stinky, “like bad Port,” alcoholic, “not as bad as the French Rabbit, but almost.” Since the Hardy’s Chardonnay was so much better, I’d give another box of this another chance. It scored 0.5.
Last up was the Bota Box California Old Vine Zinfandel, 2009 ($16.59/3 liters.) Its color was medium garnet, with a weak but pleasant nose of plums and spice; light body; on the palate were fresh strawberries, cherries and grape juice, but it lacked acidity, and had almost no finish. It was described as a “teenage” wine, a fruit bomb with no complexity, and one-dimensional. Its score was 1.6.
By the end of the tasting, everyone had figured out that the characteristic the wines shared was probably not something along the lines of all being Theresa’s favorite Burgundies. One of out tasters, in fact, guessed that they all came out of a box. Even after the cat was out of the bag and everyone knew that we had tasted ten boxed wines, we were all surprised at the lack of quality, character, interest and plain drinkability the wines possessed. Even as simple beverages to go with a simple meal, only the Black Box Riesling and Black Box Malbec were up to snuff, and everyone agreed that for the same money, there were better options available in glass.
We only tasted ten of all of the box wines available, so our survey is far from conclusive. But from what we saw, it seems like the wine they’re putting into boxes, rather than the boxes themselves, is something that will probably discourage us from being very eager to pick up a box of wine in the near future. The fact that we had a 30% rate of flawed wine may speak to an issue with the protection the box/bladder system itself offers to the wines they contain. If anyone has had better luck with a boxed wine, we’re eager to hear about it.