I’ve written a couple of times before about box wines. Many of them are excellent values for everyday drinking. The only drawback to them is that they tend to be…well…boxy. The usual size of these is three liters, which is the equivalent of four bottles. The packaging is ingenious, since it’s basically airtight and wines will last a long time, especially while refrigerated.
One drawback, however -- while that size is handy to have around the house, it’s not particularly portable. Smaller versions have been popping up in some stores. J-Mac (not to be confused with J-Woww), one of the Vine’s regular readers, suggested: “It's summer, buy a couple of those "juice boxes," and have a picnic…” Not a bad idea!
The smaller versions come most frequently in one-liter containers, so there's an extra glass or so per carton compared to a regular bottle. You also can find them in 500 ml or 250 ml sizes, so they do start to approach the size of a Capri Sun. If you've got kids and you buy some of these, make sure you check closely when packing lunch. I’m not sure how well pinot grigio pairs with 4th grade civics.
These packages are also considerably lighter than glass bottles, so they make much more sense when you’re heading out to the local park, woods, levee, or anywhere else you may want to spread a blanket and enjoy some good company. In Europe, winemakers have been putting out this kind of smaller packaging for years, but it’s yet to catch on in the U.S. (although I think that will probably change in the future).
I headed to the local beverage superstore and picked out a few of these to sample. Here’s what I came home with:
Three Thieves "Bandit" 2008 California Pinot Grigio -- not half bad. Pleasantly peachy nose. Fairly substantial for a pinot grigio. Some weight to the palate with apple and peach flavors. A little bit of residual sugar, clearly. The finish is fruity and slightly sweet. It's not as acidic or tart as many pinot grigios, but I don't think that's the idea here. The purpose is clearly to create a wine that is food-friendly and inoffensive. Success recorded. For $5-8 a liter, an excellent value, especially when you're comparing it to other bottles of pinot grigio in the $4-6 range. It blows those away.
Vendange "Tetra Pak" (NV) California Chardonnay -- There's a saying I've heard somewhere in my travels: "A little bit of sugar covers a whole lot of flaws." This Vendange is a lovely illustration of just that. Since it's inexpensive California chardonnay, I expected either a load of oak or cream, with some fruit. I was one for three. Very little, if any, oak. No butter. Some pear flavors, but the nose is odd, and there's a residual sweetness that's probably there to cover the fact that, well, not a lot of care went into the making of this wine. It's leftover juice, fermented, sweetened a bit, and packed up to sell at about six bucks a liter. After a glass, my stomach hurt a bit. Give it a pass unless you're making spritzers.
French Rabbit 2004 Vin de Pays d'Oc Pinot Noir -- I'll admit I was looking forward to a portable pinot. I didn't have high expectations, of course. I just hoped for a light, food-friendly red that I'd be able to put a little bit of a chill on and slug on. Cracked it, poured it...and almost spit my mouthful across the monitor. This was an absolutely horrible wine. The whole point of having one of these "tetra paks" is that a wine is supposed to stay fresh. If this was "fresh" wine, I don't know who'd like it. Sour, acidic, and horrifically unpleasant. My immediate thought was to take your $8-9 and buy yourself a sixer of Smithwick's or something. You'll be better off. Bleah.
Something nagged at me, though. The Vendange and the French Rabbit seemed so “off” that I couldn’t believe a winery would actually send those out into the world. I was at my local Kroger and decided to pop into their wine store. They had the Vendange, but not the French Rabbit. Instead, I picked up the Alice White (NV) South Eastern Australian Shiraz.
The Alice White was, for all intents and purposes, the same as the Alice White that you’d get in a bottle. Straightforward, fruity, drinkable, and non-thinkable. Decent enough if no one’s looking. But my second go-round with the Vendange was a different experience. There was less sweetness and none of the weird nose. It still wasn’t my favorite chardonnay – even at that price point – but it was much more palatable.
So, what happened? My theory – the inexpensive wines are the ones handled with the least care. At some point along the line, these containers were probably left to sit in a hot truck or on a hot palette somewhere – and the wine began to turn to vinegar. In the French Rabbit’s case, that process was rather far along, I think.
I won’t name names, but I’ve had “vinegarized” box wine on a couple of other occasions from this same beverage superstore. I would be willing to give the French Rabbit another try, but I haven’t been able to locate it anywhere else around here. I’ll update this entry when I get the chance to give it another go.
Just the same, like many of the inexpensive wines out there, as long as you don’t need to think too much about what you’re drinking, you can probably find something at least decently quaffable to pack along in a cooler or a basket. No breakage, no worries, and easy cleanup. Any of you have experience with these you’d like to share?