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Wednesday, March 15, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Wine Adviser

Go ahead — think inside the box

Special to the Seattle Times

Pick of the week


Casarsa 2004 Pinot Grigio/Pinot Blanc; $10 (for 3-liter cask).

This well-known Italian brand offers both a merlot and a pinot grigio/pinot blanc in the 3-liter cask. The white blend is particularly nice, soft and delicate, with a hint of almond. At $10 (for four bottles' worth of wine!), it is a fine value. (Young's Columbia).

Just two years ago, when I first wrote about box (or cask) wines, they were a curiosity at best.

There were very few available, and only the early innovators among the wine-drinking crowd bothered to give them a look. Like screwcaps, which were also being introduced at the time, box wines suffered from a decades-long history of ill repute. Only cheap, generic plonk came in such packaging, scoffed serious wine drinkers. And with good reason.

But this is no longer true. Yes, you still can find jug wines in screwcaps, some decent, some not so good. And yes, there are still the big (5-liter) boxes, filled with that same, bland brand of Chateau Fermented Whatever from the Central Valley's sea of vineyards. But the new generation of boxes, many in a more convenient 3-liter (four-bottle) size, hold vintage-dated, premium varietal wines.

There are many advantages to purchasing your everyday wines in this format.

Convenience is a big factor. Boxes are the perfect solution for boats, campers or virtually any outdoor setting. They are disposable; unbreakable; easy to stack, store and carry; and they require no corkscrew to open. Once chilled, they hold their temperature longer than bottles and offer extra protection from the damaging rays of the sun.

Most boxes are stamped with a "packaged on" or "drink by" date, a useful guarantee of freshness. They have explicit instructions (on the bottom of the box) for opening, and there is nothing cheap or cheesy about the functionality of the airtight bag or the dripless spout. Because the bag collapses as it is emptied, the wine is never exposed to air. Freshness is guaranteed for a month or more. You can enjoy a small glass with dinner, and it will be as fresh on day 30 as it was on day one.

Because they may be recycled, boxes are easy on the environment. The wineries also make a convincing claim that far less fuel is consumed during shipping because box wines weigh far less than comparable quantities of bottles.

Best of all, you can now find both white and red box wines from all over the world, many quite pleasantly drinkable, and costing just $3-$4 for the equivalent of a regular bottle.

Along with the standard 3-liter boxes, smaller packages (called Tetrapaks) are becoming more widely available. Most of these hold 1 liter (an extra third of a regular bottle) and are shaped like a juice carton, complete with a plastic screwcap. Unlike the bigger boxes, they do not have a self-collapsing inner pouch; however, if you want just a glass of wine, you can (very carefully!) squeeze the air out of your Tetrapak, and it will keep the wine reasonably well for several days.

Box wines and wines in Tetrapaks are sold mostly in supermarkets rather than dedicated wine shops and have particular appeal to women and younger consumers who are less interested in stodgy "tradition" and more willing to try something new. Along those lines, wineries keep looking for the perfect single-serving package, trying everything from tiny little bottles to cans to cartons.

An Italian brand, Tavernello, is offering two of its wines in 250-ml cartons, which are sold three to a package (one brick-sized package equals a regular bottle of wine). Tavernello claims to be the world's fourth best-selling table-wine brand but has not been seen in the U.S. until very recently. It offers pinot grigio and merlot in the single-serving size, and adds trebbiano, sangiovese and Nero d'Avola to its 1-liter lineup. Warning: The little boxes open with a foil pull-tab that is a bit tricky. I suggest you open your first box or two over the sink, just to be safe.

Tavernello and the other European box wines I've tasted remind me (in a good way) of the simple wines you will find served by the carafe in little bistros or tavernas around the continent. Fresh, young and bracing, they generally have around 12 percent alcohol, fairly austere tannins (in the reds) and are made to be drunk chilled and with food.

If you are looking for more ripe, round, slightly sweet wines, you will want to explore the offerings from California and Australia.

Here's a roundup of some of the best box and Tetrapak wines now available:

Italy, France

Tavernello: The trebbiano, though quite light, outshone the rather watery pinot grigio. I liked it for its delicate flavors of grapefruit and its finishing hint of almond. All three Tavernello reds were pleasant drinking. The Nero d'Avola had more earth, tannin and berry flavors, with a tongue-drying finish. In the 1-liter packages, these wines sell for $7-$8; the three-packs of the smaller cartons sell for $6-$7.

French Rabbit: Also packaged in a 1-liter size, these wines from the south of France are classic bistro beverages. Get yourself a simple glass carafe (or pichet) and serve them that way along with a picnic spread of cheeses, smoked meats and olives; you can pretend for an hour or so that you are vacationing in Provence. The chardonnay is crisp, lively and shows refreshing citrus and melon flavors. The merlot is insubstantial, but the cabernet sauvignon seems like an honest, no-frills, lightly herbal, very French style of farmer's market red. There is also a pinot noir, which I have not tasted. All four sell for $9 -$10.

Chateau des Alouettes: It's a bit startling to see a box with a Chateau labeling, but this rustic, substantial red from the south of France will please those who are fond of rough-and-ready syrah/grenache blends. It's got more going on than most box wines, with scents that offer floral, mineral and spicy notes. It sells for around $20 in the 3-liter package.

California, Washington

Delicato: It's popular "Bota Box" ($17) comes in five varietals: pinot grigio, chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and shiraz. Sweet, simple and fruity, they are about as quaffable as wines can be.

Black Box: Two different chardonnays, two merlots, a cabernet and a shiraz, packaged in an easy-to-spot (you guessed it!) black box and selling for $20-$25: a bit higher than the competition but still in the five-buck-chuck category (OK, I made that category up). The extra flavor justifies the extra cost.

Avery Lane: A 3-liter Washington chardonnay that tastes the way you would hope, with plenty of spicy fruit flavors of pineapple, citrus, peaches and apples. It sells for $18.

Australia

Hardys: This brand leader does chardonnay, merlot, cabernet and, of course, shiraz in the box, all selling for around $17. Forward, grapey reds and soft, sweet, tropical chardonnay make this a surefire choice for parties.

Tindindi: Next month, Tindindi will offer a tropical, minty chardonnay and a grapey young shiraz in cask packaging. A cabernet sauvignon, cabernet-merlot and a rosé are also in the works.

Notes: Two of the summer's most star-studded wine events are now accepting reservations.

Oregon's International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) will have its 20th annual celebration of all things pinot, headquartered in McMinnville, July 28-30. Tickets are being sold online at www.ipnc.org, or phone 800-775-4762.

Auction Napa Valley, the expanded format of the Napa Valley wine auction, will take place June 1-4. The owners of Cakebread Cellars will chair the auction. For a look at the schedule and ticket options, visit www.napavintners.com beginning today. For the first time, à la carte packages are available for purchase. Pre-bidding on the e-auction, will open online May 19.

Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at wine@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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