Jugos, bebidas, vinos y licoresAgo. 9, 2011
Aumenta venta de vinos a granel debido a precios más económicos y facilidad de almacenamiento
IT’S the epitome of déclassé, the vinous equivalent of trailer trash, the wine snob’s worst nightmare. No, I don’t mean the screw cap. I’m talking about boxed wine.
Despite the almost reflexive elevation of noses at the mention of boxed wines, one significant detail undermines these smug dismissals: the idea of putting wine in a box, or more accurately, in a bag within a box, is brilliant. The packaging solves significant problems that have dogged wine for millennia, whether it was stored in urn, amphora, barrel, stone crock or bottle.
No matter how elegant or handy those containers may be, their fixed volumes permit air to enter when wine is removed. Air attacks and degrades wine, making it imperative to drink up what remains, usually within no more than a few days.
The bag-in-a-box, to use the unlovely industry term, resolves this problem of oxidation by eliminating space for air to occupy. Wine can stay fresh for weeks once it has been opened. But while the packaging may be ingenious, what’s inside has been a problem.
Quite simply, the quality of the boxed wines sold in this country has been uniformly bad. Those in the wine trade have tried to explain this sad fact by citing an entrenched public perception of boxed wines as wretched. What’s the point of putting better wines in boxes, they said, if people won’t buy them?
Even so, the logic of placing wine in a box is so compelling that sooner or later, some producers were going to take a chance that better wines would sell this way. I have had isolated examples in the last few years of just the sort of fresh, lively, juicy wines that thrive in the bag-in-a-box environment. Did this signal that overall quality was turning a corner?
To answer the question, the wine panel recently tasted 20 wines from three-liter boxes. We tasted 12 reds and 8 whites, without regard to price or provenance. The only guideline for our tasting coordinator, Bernard Kirsch, was to seek out producers who were striving for quality. For the tasting, Florence Fabricant and I were joined by Colin Alevras, the service manager at the Dutch, and Alexander LaPratt, the sommelier at db Bistro Moderne.
Let me backtrack for a moment. To say that consumers have rejected boxes is not strictly accurate. At the lowest echelon of quality, the realm of domestic burgundies and rhine wines, a great deal of boxed wine is sold. These boxes, largely in five-liter sizes, the equivalent of 6.67 bottles, which might sell for as little as $12, did especially well just after the economic meltdown, said Danny Brager of the Nielsen Company, which tracks sales.
But sales are relatively flat now. The biggest growth in boxed wines, Mr. Brager said, was in the three-liter, higher-priced category: that is, $20 or more. Sales last year were up 19 percent, he said, and this year through June they are up 16 percent.
So let’s get to the crucial question: How were the wines?
Without a doubt, the choices are far superior to what was available five years ago. Among the wines we liked best, we found more than a few that we’d be happy to serve as a house pour, especially among the reds. We liked the boxes brought in by two small importers who specialize in French wines: the Wineberry Boxes from Wineberry America, and From the Tank from Jenny & François Selections, who focus on natural wines.
Jenny Lefcourt of Jenny & François became a fan of boxed wines while living in France for 10 years. “I always thought it was a fantastic way of serving and conserving wine,” she said. “I didn’t see any disadvantages to it, except that people still have a negative image of them in the U.S.”
Since the From the Tank wines, one white and one red, were introduced in 2008, she said, they have taken off nationally. “I’m pretty bowled over by the success of it,” she said. “We were cautious at first, but we just kept selling out.”
Wineberry began with its boxes two years ago, and now sells three reds, two whites and a rosé. The Wineberry boxes are unusual in that they are made of wood rather than cardboard, which gives them heft, solidity and a certain personality the cardboard boxes lack.
“We live in the most sophisticated area in the world,” said Eric Dubourg, the founder of Wineberry, which is based in New York. “People care about what things look like. Still, the quality of the wine is the main point.”
True enough, and Wineberry’s 2010 Côtes-du-Rhône from Domaine le Garrigon was our clear favorite, with its fresh red fruit and mineral flavors. A juicy, pleasurable wine, it would be good for gulping uncritically but offers enough interest to satisfy people who care about what they are consuming.
We also liked the From the Tank red, a 2009 Côtes-du-Rhône from Estézargues, a very good cooperative. This, too, was fresh and lively, though perhaps a little more straightforward than the Garrigon. Still, these were exactly the sort of pleasing wines we were hoping to find, and reasonably priced. Both were under $40 a box, the equivalent of less than $10 a bottle, and excellent values, in fact, compared with most $10 bottles.
The boxed whites on the whole were less attractive. Too many were flat, lacked vivacity and seemed muted aromatically. We liked our top white well enough, the 2010 Torre del Falasco from Cantina Valpantena in the Veneto region of Italy. It was made of the garganega grape, the main grape in Soave, but for one reason or another didn’t qualify to be called Soave. Nonetheless, it was lively, with the nutlike quality that I often find in Soave and a fine value at $27.
Our next white, a 2010 New Zealand sauvignon blanc from Black Box, struck none of us as sauvignon blanc in the blind tasting. This was odd, as sauvignon blanc is generally one of the easier grapes to identify. But this wine, while fresh and tangy, lacked any sauvignon blanc character. We liked it enough to make it our No. 6 wine. We also liked the 2010 Picpoul de Pinet from La Petite Frog in the Languedoc, in southern France, a very pleasant summer drinker.
Even though two more whites made our Top 10, we all thought they could have been better. It occurred to me that while box packaging solves a problem once the wines are opened, it perhaps creates one before they are opened.
Unopened boxed wines have a shorter shelf life. The box and bag are more porous to air than an unopened bottle, so they must be consumed relatively young. What’s more, because they are so inexpensive, they may not be handled or stored with great care. Heat and vibration can be hard on whites in particular, which is one possible reason the whites didn’t perform as well as the reds.
I said these wines were cheap, but we indeed had one outlier. It was our No. 3, Dominio IV’s Love Lies Bleeding, a 2009 pinot noir from the Dundee Hills in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. It cost $90, almost twice as much as the next most expensive box on the list, Wineberry’s 2010 Bourgogne Blanc from Baronne du Chatelard, which was $48. What accounts for this disparity?
For one thing, grapes from the Dundee Hills aren’t cheap, and neither is aging the wine in oak barrels, 30 percent new, said Patrick Reuter, the winemaker.
The wine was fresh and deep, very ripe and a bit oaky but clearly identifiable as good pinot noir. Mr. Reuter said the boxes had sold well to restaurants, which poured it by the glass. But consumers, he said, seemed to think that the high price required a more elegant vessel.
“I think I need to think out the packaging,” he said.
At the same time, he said, he has kept a box on the counter in his kitchen for months, and the wine is still good.
“I can’t believe how intact it’s stayed,” he said. “It’s the craziest thing.”