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Archive for September 13th, 2007

Yesterday at Whole Foods, I picked up a box of organic box wine from Australia.  Since September, the organic-friendly supermarket has started offering the Green Path Shiraz and Chardonnay by Organic One Winery in New South Wales. I was intrigued by the fact that it was an organic wine, and that it was in a box.

While I won’t get into the discussion on the supposed merits of organic wines in this entry, I would like to state again for the record that I’m a strong proponent for box wines, even if their quality as it stands currently leaves much to be desired. But, if we can get over our snobbish inclination to keep to the tradition of using corks and convert to screw caps, we should over time be able to accept the still-alien notion of drinking quality wines from boxes. The advantages of box wines are many fold: (1) cheaper; (2) portable; (3) ability to keep for a longer period of time. And demand creates supply. So as wine lovers, we should demand the sale of more – and higher quality – box wines. To that end, suppliers have become increasingly amicable to the idea of box wines. In a recent WSJ article, first growth Bordeaux Château Lagrange cellar master said in response to the shift towards more exotic packaging, “Normally, I am a traditionalist. … But if it works, why not?”

According to Wine Lovers, box wines make up more than one-third of the wines stocked in any Italian supermarkets now. Some of these box wines are packaged in the by now familiar bag-in-box wine package popularized by Australians, but the newest wine receptacles to hit the market are the Tetra Paks. Tetra Paks are soft-sided, flexible cardboard boxes coated with a neutral plastic lining and sealed with a plastic screw cap.

The following is a description of the box design by Wine Lovers:

Lightweight (about 2 1/2 pounds per liter when full of wine, a half-pound less than a 750 ml glass wine bottle holding 25 percent less wine), unbreakable, easy to carry and dispose of, the concept seems made for picnics and travel (although it should be noted that current airline security rules ban liquids from carry-on baggage). The Tetra Pak is also billed as being recyclable, although some Canadian critics have questioned this as a practical matter, as the combination of cardboard and resin requires special handling; empty Tetra Paks can’t simply be recycled with newsprint and office waste and may end up in landfills.

For traditionalists and wine snobs still grappling with the notion of screwcaps and synthetic artificial corks, the notion of re-inventing a mass-market package customarily used for fruit juice, soup or milk may seem more like a nightmare than a dream.

Indeed, it’s unlikely that we’ll be seeing high-end, ageworthy wines in Tetra Pak in the foreseeable future if ever; this packaging isn’t designed for products with a very long shelf life, and its natural market for wine appears to be everyday quaffers, the basic “spaghetti reds” and “sipping whites” meant to be drunk up while they’re young and fresh.

But from an industry standpoint, that’s hardly a problem, as inexpensive, everyday wines make up the lion’s share of the market. In Italy, it’s reported that Tetra Pak wines already make up one-third of all supermarket wine sales, matching the volume of low-end bottled wines sold there. In Canada, the LCBO blew large quantities of low-cost wine in Tetra Pak off the shelves just about as quickly as it could be packaged.

And even in the U.S., which has been slower to embrace the technology, the amount of wine-shop shelf space devoted to Tetra Pak is growing fast. Among others, “Three Thieves,” a California firm that made a splash in recent years with its inexpensive wines in old-fashioned liter jugs (July 31, 2005 30 Second Wine Advisor), rushed to market a couple of years ago with a new Tetra Brik line of California varietal wines dubbed “Bandit.” The French negociant Boisset has joined the cute-animal-label brigade with colorful Tetra Pak containers labeled “French Rabbit.” And U.S. natural-foods leader Whole Foods got into the stampede last month with an organic Australian wine in Tetra Pak called “Green Path.”

Love the Tetra Pak or hate it, we had might as well get used to it. With the market clearly accepting the concept at least for lower-end wines, the industry has little incentive to turn back, particularly when we consider that a glass bottle and cork adds well over $1 to the cost of every bottle of wine, while Tetra Paks in quantity cost the producer less than 10 cents per unit.

But how about the wine in the package? Two obvious questions arise: Does the container alter the flavor? And just how good is the wine?

Based on a couple of preliminary tastings that I undertook to check whether more extensive “blind” comparative tastings would be justified, my initial response is a cautious, slight positive: The Tetra Pak doesn’t seem to impart bad or “off” flavors, at least assuming that the wine is fresh. Based on this limited sample, though, the wines – consistent with the mass-market standard for box wines and jug wines – are simple, clean but not memorable, barely rising to the level that would appeal to most “wine geeks” except perhaps for a picnic or casual party.

Green Path Shiraz from Organic One’s Billabong Vineyard in Jerilderie, New South Wales, Australia

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My thoughts: I first took a sip when I was still sautéing my bratwursts, and immediately grimaced. It was harsh, and sourish, and I felt quite disappointed. Had I just spent $10 on a liter of wine I was going to use as cooking wine? I still had a whole box of old wine I was using for that purpose right then. Later on though, after I was done cooking my pasta, I tentatively took a couple more sips. I don’t know whether it had been mellowed down by the air or the food, but this time the wine tasted much more palatable – jammy, plumy fruit with a pleasant sweet finish. Not much of a nose, but I was distracted by my pasta anyway.

Thoughts from Wine Lovers Page:

Made with organically grown grapes and packaged in Tetra Pak for Whole Foods markets, this is a clear, dark cherry-red. Plumy fruit and aromatic oak with overtones of caramel. Mouth-filling and ripe, forward red fruit and oaky vanilla, a hint of sweetness well balanced by appropriate fresh-fruit acidity. Simple, quaffable; similar to pop-style Australian Shiraz in traditional bottles at the same low-end price point. It might not be my favorite style of wine, but I can’t see any evidence that the Tetra Pak is any less effective a container than glass, and it certainly boasts the advantages of lightweight portability, with a small extra point for the possibility of squeezing out most of the air before closing the plastic screw cap. Decent quaff with the bold flavors of Cuban-style arroz con pollo. U.S. importer: The Country Vintner Inc., Oilville, Va. (Sept. 7, 2007)

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