The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 4

The Back Story:

We’re well into our experiment now. We’ve officially opened 15 liters of the boxed stuff and spent a little over $100 to do it. Has it been worth it so far? Well… no. Not at all. But there IS hope on the horizon.

This week, I received in the mail an industry sample from Octavin Home Wine Bar, a new boxed wine distributor. They seek out up-and-coming wine-makers who would be willing to offer their wines in a more environmentally-friendly packaging. They will begin releasing their wines in May beginning with the 2008 Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay. Coincidentally, they will also begin distributing the Pinot Evil that I reviewed two weeks ago.

To be honest, I like the direction this company has taken. They only release their wines in these distinctive packages, and they’re staking their reputation on making boxed wines that are a step above the rest. I’ve already had the Pinot Evil, and assuming the quality persists, it’s a good addition to their line-up. How does the Monthaven Chardonnay fare, though? At the very least, it exceeded my expectations.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is light gold with a greenish tinge. It appears to be fairly viscous.

The nose of the wine is predominately green apple, with oak, slight floral and tropical notes. It’s not terribly aromatic. Cool alcohol scent coming through the aroma.

The mouth feel of the wine is very full and tangy, with a moderately creamy texture.

The flavor of the wine is rather full-bodied. I’m getting apple first and foremost, as in the nose, but with a distinct oaky, buttery undertone. A hint of overripe bananas combined with floral characteristics round out the finish, which becomes a trifle bitter as it lingers. It’s off-dry, with a high acidity balancing with a considerable sweetness. I’m actually rather impressed with the flavor, though the acidity is a little high. The alcohol, at 13.5%, fits right in with this wine.

For the Casual Drinker:

I would wholly recommend this wine… if it weren’t for that bitterness. There’s just something off on the finish. As it stands, it’s still a heck of a bargain, and aside from the finish, it’s got a great flavor. It’s not over-oaked like many cheap Chardonnays from the West Coast, but it aged just long enough in American oak to pick up an extra dimension to its flavor. For the price, you can’t go wrong, especially if you’re looking for a more aggressively-flavored white wine to pair with a spicier meal.

The Conclusion:

Like the Pinot Evil, there’s just something slightly off on the flavor that ruins what could be a home run of a boxed wine. In the end, it suffers the fate of other boxed wines, and that’s being cursed to only reach the level of averageness. It retails at $23.99, averaging to $6 per bottle. If it weren’t for the lack of balance and the extreme bitterness on the finish, I would call this far and away the frontrunner for the best boxed wine. 5/10

Disclaimer: this box was provided by the distributor as a sample.

Current Line-up:

Monthaven Central Coast Chardonnay 2008

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, balanced alcohol, apple, tropical, oaky flavors and nose, medium, way too bitter finish.

Washington Hills Merlot NV

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) alcohol, decent acidity, red fruit, blueberry, oaky flavors and nose, short finish.
  • Week 1 – 3/10 – Still hot on the tongue, balanced acidity, flavors are all holding true. Nose hasn’t changed.

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.
  • Week 2 – 5/10 – Still tasting pretty fresh. Still balanced. Flavor tastes on par with previous tastings.

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.
  • Week 3 – 3/10 – There’s something a little off on the flavor, but it’s not enough to drop the score. Still mostly the same.

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 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 Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 2

The Back Story:

Pinot Evil labelPinot Evil’s Pinot Noir is one of those shapeshifters in the wine world. Because they don’t have a dedicated vineyard, they’re free to chase the best grapes they can find for their wine. The drawback is there’s really no guarantee of quality from cask to cask, and this is reflected in the fact that the wine is non-vintage. Pinot Evil eschews the entire traditional wine-making process, which is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s certain to offend old-school wine sensibilities.

Pinot Evil used to use a variety of what is referred to as “vin de pays” Pinot Noir grapes from France, meaning the wine produced was regulated and tested but not necessarily reaching Appellation d’origine contrôlée standards. I haven’t had any of the French production, but from what I’ve read and heard it was less than impressive, and that’s being kind. See Drinkhacker for an extreme and Fermented Reviews for a more moderate take on it.

The new Pinot Evil only recently began production, meaning it’s just now getting worked out in the consumer market. They’re now currently harvesting their grapes and making the wine all in Hungary, then shipping it off to be packaged in Pinot Evil Cellars in California. From an environmental standpoint, this is ideal. You get both the authentic Hungarian winemaking elements and the cost- and energy-saving benefits of shipping in bulk. Packaging in bag-in-box also helps to save shipping space and weight cross-country.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is a deep, pure red translucency, though it has a rather thin texture. There’s no inkiness or opacities tainting its lighter color.

The nose of the wine is very hot, especially at 12.7% alcohol. I’m getting primarily cherries, though there are some interesting earthy undertones with mushrooms and cinnamon making an appearance.

The mouth feel of the wine is a little bit silky and surprisingly aggressive. I was expecting it to be flabby, but there’s a pleasant tanginess that suggests a good balance between the acid, tannins, and alcohol.

The flavor of the wine is primarily sour redfruits, a strong cherry and cranberry attack. I’m getting a weak chocolate flavor on the mid-palate, but beyond that it’s fairly simple and fruity, with a disappointingly short finish and an odd metallic tinge after the initial flavors subside. The acidity is a little high, but not too bad given the relatively meager tannins. It’s initially off-dry (residual sugar at 6.5 g/l), and you’ll get a nice, light burst of sweetness with the attack, but as the wine approaches the finish it creates a powdery dryness.

For the Casual Drinker:

This is the first boxed wine I’ve had that truly offered a sense of balance. The acidity is low but just high enough to provide structure to a lighter-bodied wine with low tannins. The nose is rather alcoholic, but as long as you keep your nose out of the glass when you smell, you’ll be able to experience an interesting, earthy bouquet. The flavor of sour berries will definitely please your tastebuds, even though the finish is far too short. I would be more than comfortable serving this to a big party. The flavor is so delicate, though, you’d need to pair it with a meal that’s not too spicy or otherwise aggressively flavorful, maybe a dish from one of the various meats you can get from a pig.

The Conclusion:

For the price, $18.99 retail for a 3 liter cask, averaging to $4.75 per bottle, this is a fantastic bargain that would do well for a dinner party, at least so long as the wine snobs aren’t allowed to see the box or the non-vintage designation. Bottles normally retail at $5.99, so if you go boxed, you’re getting 20% off the price. Translated another way, that means around 20% of what you’re paying on that bottle is for the fancy glass packaging. Even if you’re not a green kind of person, knocking that much off the price is well worth slumming it with a bag-in-box. I could definitely see myself buying this guy again, if only to have a backup red wine to share. 5/10

Note:: This review applies to the regular box packaging of Pinot Evil, which is no longer available in stores. I have not tried the Octavin release of this wine to see how it compares.

Current Line-up:

Pinot Evil Pinot Noir NV

  • Week 0 – 5/10 – slightly imbalanced acidity, balanced alcohol, earthy nose, red fruit flavor, short finish, slight metallic undertaste.

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

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

Retired Line-up: None so far!

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 1

The Back Story:

My first full week into the experiment involved a brand I had never heard of before: Bota Box. Produced by Delicato Family Vineyards out in California, the Bota Box is an attempt by a long-entrenched member of the Californian wine industry to break into the boxed wine market, though, oddly enough, there is no connection between the Delicato website and the Bota Box website. Maybe they’re letting the brand stand on its own merits? I can say with certainty that their target demographic will not be disappointed.

The packaging is pretty straight-forward when it comes to discerning that demographic: casual, environmentally-conscious wine drinkers. The minimalist, informative packaging eschews the normal, self-congratulatory flash and embellishment of boxed wines, though the copy does refer to the wine as “premium” a little too often. We’re not going to know anything about the wine by focusing on the box, however, so let’s rip this guy open and see what it tastes like.

The Results:

The appearance of the wine is very dark, inky all the way to the edge. It’s barely translucent with a purplish-red color. Good legs, moderate viscosity. Swirl suggests a thin texture.

The nose of the wine is rather unimpressive. It’s slightly plummy, slightly skunky, with a suggestion of black cherry. There’s really very little else that I can detect. To be honest, it  has the standard cheap red wine nose. There’s a moderate amount alcohol coming through.

The mouth feel of the wine is, well, also rather unimpressive. It’s smoother than most boxed wines, but still doesn’t stack up to a true premium wine.

The flavor of the wine  is better than the nose would suggest. It has a fairly high acidity, though it overwhelms the flavor. The flavor also loses some of its punch due to an inordinate amount of alcohol taste as well (alc is 13%). It’s fairly tannic, though not as much as a Shiraz should be, and not as dry as I would expect. I’m getting maybe some black fruit, a little bit of spice. It has a finish of a surprisingly robust blueberry, not as short as I would have expected, but still fairly short.

For the Casual Drinker:

It’s coming from a box, so your expectations will be met. If you pair this wine with an outdoor barbecue, you probably can’t go wrong. As long as the focus is on having fun and eating greasy, spicy food, this wine should go over just fine. If you’re sitting down for a more intimate wine-drinking session, or are pairing with a gourmet meal, it would be best to leave this guy on the shelf. The imbalance in the wine isn’t wince-inducing, and its overall tameness makes it a fairly easy drinker, so don’t expect a typical Shiraz experience.

The Conclusion:

This wine’s not going to take the gold in my experiment, but it wasn’t a complete disappointment either. You get what you pay for, and at 23.99 for a box, roughly 6 dollars a bottle, it’s exactly what you’d expect for a domestic bargain red, which is to say it holds its own against the bottled bargain variety. 3/10

Current Line-up:

Bota Box Shiraz California 2006:

  • Week 0 – 3/10 – imbalanced (high) acidity, imbalanced (high) alcohol, smooth texture, black fruits, very hot nose

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.

Retired Line-up: None so far!

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine: Week 0

The Back Story:

I kicked off the beginning of The Search for the Best Boxed Wine (that’s right, I’m officially designating this experiment with capital letters) with one of the bigger names in boxed wine fare: Black Box.  I had a choice between the Chardonnay and Merlot. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find their Riesling, which I hear is the most consistent and palatable. I decided, with whatever reasoning I managed to cobble together at that point, that it would be more difficult to mess up a white wine than a red wine, so I opted for the Chardonnay Monterey 2008. Was it a worthy kick-off to this experiment? The answer is a resounding… maybe.

(from the Black Box website)

The Results:

The appearance of the wine was a pale straw color with a tinge of gold. The wine has good legs, and the swirl suggested a somewhat thick texture.

The nose of the wine was rather weak and floral with hints of banana, apple, and honey. The good news is the alcohol, at 13.5%, doesn’t really come through, suggesting it will be at least drinkable.

The mouth feel of the wine was surprisingly thin, with a briny acidity. It felt weak in the mouth, but it caused a thick feeling in the back of the throat and caused a rather immediate sensation of heartburn. This suggests a lack of balance as the acidity is just over 7 g/l.

The flavor of the wine was also fairly weak, slightly sour with unripe apple and citrus, rather dry with sugar exactly at 4 g/l. There was just a hint of alcohol flavor in the palate, but it was fairly cool and didn’t disturb the flavor too much. Despite the balance in the alcohol, I would still describe the wine as backward; it was hard to focus on the subtle flavors through the acidity. The wine also benefited minimally from aeration, meaning it’s about as good as it gets right out of the box. Frankly, I think the grapes were just harvested too early, a problem I imagine is pretty common for mass-produced wines.

For the Casual Drinker:

Despite the high acidity and lack of balance, it was still fairly drinkable. It was just sweet enough to keep the acidity from simply overwhelming the wine, and there was just enough flavor to keep the wine from being a complete disappointment. That said, to be blunt, I wouldn’t lead off a night or a party with this wine. This would be best to break out after the senses have been slightly dulled by a first, more balanced bottle of wine. It’s very drinkable, just rather unimpressive. The acidity is also good for a dose of heartburn if you’re not expecting it.

The Conclusion:

A rather inauspicious beginning to my experiment. Actually, that’s a little harsh. It retails at $25 for 3 liters, averaging just over $6 dollars per 750ml “bottle,” which makes it a win as long as it’s drinkable. I’ve seen it as low as $16 before, meaning it can be a fantastic bargain table or party wine if you luck out. It could have gone a lot worse, I know, and as far as expectations for boxed wine goes, this one surpassed it, but the point here is to find something even experienced wine drinkers can get into. 4/10

Current 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

Retired Line-up:

None so far!

Official Rules for the Search for the Best Boxed Wine

After much deliberation, I’ve settled on the format for my boxed wine experiment. In my search for the best boxed wine, I need to be as empirical and objective as possible, as there are several variables at play that I am trying to record.

I want to have an organized method for tasting the wines in a timely manner while figuring out the shelf life of each one. Therefore, I’ve devised this testing method:

1) I will open a new boxed wine each Saturday, giving it an official tasting as I would any other wine (appearance, nose, texture, flavor, the whole range).

2) I will taste every other boxed wine from youngest to oldest, testing for any declines due to oxidation or age. Once a wine is declared undrinkable, it will be removed from consideration.  I figure by going from younger to older, I’ll be more likely to detect the subtle changes in wine due to aging if the fresher wines are tasted first.

3) After 5 weeks, the wine will be removed from consideration. If it makes it more than a month and is still drinkable, I will consider it to be a successful boxed wine.

4) Wines removed from consideration will receive an adjusted score based on their initial rating, longevity, and sustained quality.

5) A write-up detailing all current and former wines will reach the light of day each Monday, after a Saturday of testing and a Sunday of scribbling.

The excitement begins this weekend! Who’s stoked? I know you are… If you have any tips for boxed wines to try, by all means, leave me a comment. I’ve gotten some good feedback about artisanal wines that are going the bag-in-box route, so I know there’s got to be more out there.

The Search for the Best Boxed Wine

Judging from the traffic that’s been coming to my blog lately, there is a growing segment of the population that is interested in finding drinkable boxed wine. Now, I’ve already reviewed a wine that I’ve called “The Best Boxed Wine You’ll Ever Buy,” but I cheated in the definition: Yellow + Blue Torrontes is a carton, not a bag-in-a-box. I’ve decided, then, to pursue an on-going search for the best boxed wine that money can buy.

Some of you more hardcore winos out there might be laughing at this search, that it’s most likely frivolous, a waste of my time. We shall see, but I’m willing to bet there are a few respectable wine makers out there that were willing to eschew the traditions of old-world wine for a more environmentally-friendly and economical packaging. In fact, my company is currently looking into boxed wine accessories to add to our product collection soon after our launch. We want to cater to consumers of all wines, not just those dedicated to the bottle.

A benefit of boxed wine, aside from the environmental considerations and cost,  is the fact that it just lasts longer in the bag… weeks longer. The nature of the bag keeps the wine from being exposed to air until it’s poured. The oxidation process is drastically slowed, and you don’t run the risk of the wine being corked or tainted; the only issues affecting the wine would be introduced during the wine making process itself.

There are two specific benefits to the search that make it worth my while: boxed wine usually runs much cheaper than bottled wine, meaning I’ll actually be saving money compared to my usual reviews, and I have plenty of family and friends nearby who have absolutely no qualms about quaffing wine that has never touched a glass bottle before, in the offhand chance that I’m just not up to finishing off multiple liters of the stuff.

This search will be interspersed with my normal wine-drinking. I’ve got a long queue of wines to open, and I don’t want this blog to become too monotone. Check back periodically to see how the search is going. I’m creating a category link on the sidebar to make my experiences easier to reach.

Until then, stalwart drinkers.

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