The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 3

The Back Story:

My first wine love

For this week’s search for the best boxed wine, I’m returning to the roots of my wine snobbery. As I was growing up, I always had the impression of wine as that inky stuff my parents would drink that smelled like Easter egg dye and cost as much as a fifth of bourbon or a case of beer. In other words, it wasn’t an investment that was high on my list. That all changed when, as I moved into yet another college apartment, my parents sent, along with a truckload of pack-rat resultant clutter, a few bottles of Washington Hills Late Harvest Riesling. As a sort of celebration for my hard work in hanging a few tattered posters, I popped the cork on one of the bottles. I couldn’t believe the sensations! So this is what wine tastes like when you’re all grown up and avoiding Sutter Home!

Ever since then, I’ve looked at wine not as a weak sauce, expensive option when you’re drinking to get drunk but as the journey that it should be. It changed my perceptions of what consuming alcohol should be. I know, I know, it’s a sub-$10, rather simple Riesling, but damn if it didn’t taste like heaven to a college scamp weaned on bargain schlock. With this experience in mind, when I saw that Washington Hills was now selling wine in a cask, I absolutely had to add it to my queue.

I want to make note of a difference between the cask Merlot and the bottled variety: They’re two completely different wines. The bottled Merlot has a vintage (the recent ’06 non-reserve for a fairer comparison), breaks down 76% Merlot, 14% Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 3% Cabernet Franc, and has a higher acidity with a pH at 3.32. The cask wine is non-vintage, breaks down 75% Merlot, 20% Sangiovese, and 5% Cab Franc, and has a pH of 3.68. If you’ve had either that ’06 non-reserve or the ’07 Reserve, which is 100% Merlot, be aware that you’re getting a different wine.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep cherry red, just a hint of violet, translucent, and has a medium viscosity.

The nose of the wine is a combination of blueberry, oak, vanilla, and cherry. It smells an awful lot like blueberry yogurt, to be perfectly frank. For 13.5% alcohol, the nose isn’t too terribly hot, but it’s carrying the aroma very well.

The mouth feel of the wine is rather thin for a Merlot, though it’s a little tangy, and there’s enough substance there to keep it from being flat-out flabby.

The flavor of the wine is utterly unimpressive. It’s just all-around weak with a red-fruit base. Very oaky, a little spicy, with a slightly short finish of blueberry. The finish is the only part where the flavor truly stands out. The alcohol comes through too much, very hot. The wine is off-dry with a palatable sweetness that comes through more because of the lower acidity.

For the Casual Drinker:

It’s pretty much a cheap, drinkable red wine. I can’t say that it’ll knock anyone’s socks off, and I definitely would recommend putting off serving this wine until after a good, hearty red has, shall we say, dulled the senses of those involved. It’s a back-up wine through and through. The flavors certainly won’t overwhelm anyone, and the alcohol flavor is muted enough to keep it from offending sensitive palates. The acidity is relatively low as well, keeping it from reaching heartburn-inducing levels.

The Conclusion:

I should have researched this wine before I purchased it. If I’d known it wasn’t the same Merlot that Washington Hills has been bottling, I probably would have tried a different box. For $20, it’s a solid 3/10, if you can call that solid.

Current Line-up:

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.
  • Week 1 – 5/10 – Still as fresh as when it was opened. Similar earthiness, red fruits, short finish, slightly imbalanced acidity.

Bota Box Shiraz California 2006:

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, imbalanced (high) alcohol, smooth texture, black fruits, very hot nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – imbalanced acidity and alcohol, smooth texture, no loss in flavor, hot nose, maybe a bit more bitter finish
  • Week 2 – 3/10 – Still imbalanced, same texture, flavor, and nose. Holding its meager flavor well.

Retired Line-up:

Black Box Chardonnay Monterey 2008:

  • Week 0 – 4/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, briny, weak texture, slightly sour, fruit-forward, weak nose
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – lost nothing on the nose, lost some flavor, still very imbalanced acidity, similar mouth feel, texture, increased sourness
  • Week 2 – 2/10 – Nose and flavor are starting to get musty, still overly acidic, beginning to taste flat, metallic, alcohol flavor still balanced
  • Week 3 – 1/10 – Nose and flavor lost distinguishing characteristics. Taste mostly of acid and alcohol. Flavor is officially wince-inducing. Consider this guy retired.
  • Average score: 2.5/10. Length of stay = 3 weeks. Final score is 2/10. Started off all right, but deteriorated too quickly to make it a contender for the best boxed wine.

The 2010 Texas – Virginia Wine Summit Part 4: Eye on the Future

Looking for the rest of our series? You can find it here:
Part 1: The Dawn of Cooperation – opening arguments of Texas vs. Virginia on Vinotology
Part 2: The Great Tasting – the Texas / Virginia wine swap on Wine(Explored)
Part 3: Independent Research – Texas hyping up Virginia and vice-versa on Vinotology

Chairman: Ladies and Gentlemen, we have reached the finale of the 2010 Texas / Virginia Wine Summit. So far we’ve made cases for each on the basis of history, provided wines, and independent research. Today, we ask our participants to make a case for the futures of their respective states’ wine industries. We’ll begin with the gentleman from Virginia, Mr. Joshua Sweeney of Wine(Explored).

Josh: Thank you, Chairman. I would like to begin my statement with a few eye-opening stats. First, I would like to highlight the rapid growth of wineries in Virginia. We had only 64 registered wineries in 2000. As of this year, there are over 160 wineries, and they’re opening at an average of two a month. We currently have 260 independent vineyards farming over 2400 acres of land dedicated to growing the grape.

Virginia Wine Is for Lovers

Second, if I asked you to estimate where Virginia fell in terms of total volume of wine produced in the US, what would you guess? 5th, 6th? As much noise as Virginia is making in the wine scene, in 2008, we were merely the 9th highest producer of wine with 3.7 million liters, or a little under 1 million gallons, crushed from Virginia grapes. Surprisingly enough, Ohio, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Florida produced more wine, while North Carolina was narrowly edged out at 3.5 million liters. Virginia is making noise in the industry while producing .17% as much wine as California, 3.46% as much as New York, 4.84% as much Washington state, and 23.72% as much as Oregon.

Also, according to the 2007 Census of Agriculture, Virginia has approximately 8.5 million acres of farmable land. Viticulture currently occupies roughly .028% of Virginia’s farmable land. To put it another way, for every acre of vines planted, there are 7000 acres of other farmable land. Industry saturation is not an issue in Virginia.

These facts point to a few important conclusions in my mind: The lack of total production combined with a growing reputation in the country suggests an overall high quality of wines being grown, and wine-makers are quickly figuring this out. And it’s not some specialized grape that’s found its niche here; traditional varietals are making an appearance. Our top four varietals produced in 2009 were Chardonnay (18.4% of total volume), Cabernet Franc (13.2%), Merlot (11.8%), and Cabernet Sauvignon (7.5%).

Other white varietals that vintners are having success with in Virginia include Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Seyval Blanc, Viognier, Vidal Blanc and Petit Manseng. Red varietals becoming popular in the area include Norton, Petit Verdot, and Chambourcin. Petit Manseng and Chambourcin especially are developing into regional specialties.

Because of the popularity of our most commonly produced varietals and the development of a few marketable specialties, our growth potential, and the rate of new wineries opening in the state, we could very well see our output beginning to match our reputation and triple by 2020. While I don’t currently foresee us taking over Oregon by then, at the very least we should be able to close the gap in total production by at least half. At the very least, the future is looking very bright for the wine industry in my state.

Chairman: Thank you, Virginia. We will now hear from the honorable gentleman of Texas, Ben Simons of Vinotology.

Texas Wine Resources

Handy resources at gotexanwine.org

Ben: Thank you Mr. Chairman.  It has been a pleasure to be able to participate in this event and to represent my state before you all.  Both of the great states represented in this event have demonstrated that they deserve to be thought of as of quality wine regions.  We have tasted some great wines, and have learned much about each state.  Today I would like to talk about the Texas wine industry, past, present, and future.

Like my colleague’s home state of Virginia, Texas also has experienced rapid growth in the number of wineries around the state.  As recently as 2003 there were only 54 wineries in the state, but that number has ballooned to over 160 wineries today.  There are roughly 3600 acres of wine grapes planted in Texas right now, which is not nearly enough acreage to produce the grapes for the wineries operating in the state.  This is both a curse and an opportunity.  The fact that Texas is producing an ever increasing amount of wine, while still having to import so much fruit, seems to indicate that there is a good deal of growth potential in both the quantity and quality of Texas wines.  Currently Texas is producing roughly 2 million gallons of wine a year, but less than 500,000 gallons are made from Texas fruit.

For most of the history of the Texas wine industry, French Bordeaux varieties have dominated the wine production in Texas, with Cabernet Sauvignon making up nearly 25% of the grape production, followed by Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Merlot.  In recent years there has been a growth in the production of more Mediterranean varieties, such as Tempranillo, Sangiovese, and Rhone varieties like Syrah, Mourvedre, and Viognier.  The challenges of the Texas growing season have lead many growers to seek out varieties more amenable to our conditions.  The result is a Texas wine industry that shows the potential to differentiate itself with some unique varieties.

Much of the wine being produced in Texas is also being consumed in Texas.  Texas consumers seem to be increasingly interested in the new varieties that are becoming more common in the state.  With the shortages in grape production that Texas faces, the likelihood of Texas wine being distributed out of state is very slim.  The single factor that will most impact Texas’ ability to become recognized as a premier wine producing region is probably grape production.  Unless more acreage is planted in grapes, thereby leading to more genuine Texas wines, Texas will not be able to develop a reputation on a national stage.  Given the wines that I have presented, I feel confident in saying that an increase in production could easily send Texas into the list of elite wine producing states.  Texas has only been seriously producing wine for the last 30 years, and the industry has come a long way in that time.  One thing seems to be clear, the best days of the Texas wine industry are still ahead of us.  Thank you.

Chairman: We’ve now reached the end of our summit. I would like to thank both participants for taking much time in the recent weeks to advocate for their respective states. It has been grueling, taxing, even bloody. Incidentally, we hope that the stenographer recovers from his nasty fall. But I digress. The chamber has reached a verdict. In my humble opinion, the state that has secured the right to be come the next big wine region is…

—END TRANSCRIPT—

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