Little Penguin Merlot 2004

Price: $7
Maker: Little Penguin
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

The Little Penguin Merlot 2004 is the second variety we’ve tried from Little Penguin, and. like the Shiraz we sampled, it’s a pleasing, accessible, and economical wine. For a Merlot, it’s unusually full. Its aroma is pleasantly fruity if a bit weak, and its smooth, rounded flavor is full of cherry with a hint of vanilla. The cherry continues into the prolonged finish, and blends with light pepper.

Cheap Wine Reviews liked this wine too.

At Box Wines, we’re impressed by Little Penguin – they seem to produce eminently drinkable red wines that will appeal to novice wine drinkers but not offend the more serious palate. I tried the Little Penguin Personality Test and, oddly enough, turned out to be a Merlot. Inasmuch as Merlot is my least favorite red, this was a bit distressing. Nevertheless, if I had to be a Merlot, I could do a lot worse than Little Penguin.

Belaire Creek Cabernet Sauvingon 2002

Price: $17
Maker: Belaire Creek Cellars
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 3-liter box
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

This wine may be a bit hard to find – even its nominal maker, Belaire Creek Cellars, may be a bit hard to track down. If you stumble across a box of Belaire Creek Cabernet Sauvingon 2002 in your supermarket, though, give it a try. It’s a bit more expensive than cheaper boxes like the Almaden Cab, but you’ll notice a subsantial improvement in flavor for the modest premium. Its mild aroma is spicy with a hint of berry. Its flavor is a balance of cherry, spice, tannins, and oak. These flavors continue into a lengthy finish, with the tannins and oak winning at the end.

This Belaire Creek cabernet is at least the equal of many lower-cost bottled cabs, and offers the attractive combination of a lower price per glass and the preservative effects of the collapsing bag. I’d pair it with steak or other grilled meat, but regular cab drinkers will find it serves a broad range of foods.

Stonehaven Shiraz 2004

Price: $7
Maker: Stonehaven Winery
Variety: Shiraz
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Stonehaven Shiraz has to be one of the great values on your supermarket shelf – we found it on sale for under $5. Higher per glass than a box, perhaps, but an amazing value in a bottle. This Shiraz fills the glass with purple-garnet color, and one’s nose with cherry fruit. Its flavor is juicy, with cherry jam being the most prominent note. The finish isn’t extended, but has a nice peppery aspect with soft tannins. Overall, one’s impression is a smooth, rounded, fruity wine with just enough complexity to make it interesting. From Stonehaven of Australia.

The blog found a 1999 version of this Shiraz a few months ago, and found that year to be a good one as well.

According to the Stonehaven US website, this wine is available in a 3 liter “cask” – we haven’t seen this yet, but it would be worth looking for. We’ve also got some Stonehaven Shiraz-Cabernet in the cellars, and we hope we find an equally strong price/quality relationship.

Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay 2002

Price: $9
Maker: Columbia Crest Winery
Variety: Chardonnay
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Washington-based Columbia Crest Winery offers this wine as a slightly upscale offering. Columbia Crest Grand Estates Chardonnay 2002 fills the glass with clear, golden light. Its primary note is apple, which suffuses both the aroma and flavor. Though not quite green apple, the flavor is a bit puckery. The flavor is robust and reasonably complex. A hint of melon softens the finish.

I’m not a huge Chardonnay fan, but this is a reasonable choice for a wine a bit more expensive than ultra-budget bottles and with sufficient character to satisfy a reasonably discriminating drinker. Its low sugar level may reduce its appeal to those who prefer a slightly sweeter wine.

Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Price: $5
Maker: Crane Lake
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Crane Lake Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 begins in a promising manner, with a mild berry aroma with a hint of vanilla. The flavor, though, is somewhat variable. On first tasting it, I was somewhat impressed by a strong jammy flavor more characteristic of a Syrah. Oddly, a second tasting a few hours later had much less of a fruit-forward character. Both times, the finish was quite abbreviated. The combination of very low price and reasonably bold flavor might make it suitable for, say, a big cookout attended by non-discriminating friends.

Beringer Pinot Grigio

Price: $6
Maker: Beringer
Variety: Pinot Grigio
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

For a staple of supermarkets and convenience stores, Beringer Pinot Grigio (2004) is a pleasant surprise. It has a melony aroma, and tastes of apple, melon, and citrus. Its flavor is crisp and slightly tart, and its finish lingers on the tongue pleasantly. It’s not as dry as some Pinot Grigios, and will appeal to neophyte wine drinkers more than some more refined examples of that varietal.

You won’t impress your guests with the Beringer label, but this wine makes an exceptionally affordable (we found it on sale for a rock-bottom $4.50) accompaniment for lighter foods, and for those guests who prefer a white wine under any circumstances. Beringer makes a number of Pinot Grigios, including Founders Estate and Stone Cellars; this one, simply dubbed California Pinot Grigio, is the least expensive of the group.

Barefoot California Syrah

Price: $6
Maker: Barefoot Cellars
Variety: Syrah
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Barefoot California Syrah (no vintage) from is easily spotted on the shelf by its distinctive label featuring a Robinson Crusoe-style footprint. The wine has a deep, purplish red color and a faint, flowery aroma. Its flavor is dominated by currants and blackberries, with a rounded finish. It’s not a great wine, but is satisfying and inexpensive enough to crack a bottle open with hamburgers or pasta with no guilt feelings.

Barefoot Cellars has won some awards with this wine:

  • GOLD Medal…International Eastern Wine Competition, Santa Rosa, CA and Watkins Glen, NY.
  • GOLD Medal…Colorado State Fair Wine Competition, Pueblo, CO.
  • GOLD Medal…San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Cloverdale, CA.
  • 1st Place…Lake County Fair, Lakeport, CA

Absent a vintage, it may be hard to compare your results with the competitions, but for the price, how far wrong can you go?

Delicato Shiraz 2004

Price: $18
Maker: Delicato Family Vineyards
Variety: Shiraz
Packaging: 3 liter box
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Sampling a box of Delicato Shiraz 2004 could be just the thing to convince a box wine sceptic that good things come in large packages. Delicato puts the same wine in its boxes as its bottles, and their wines have earned accolades both in the U.S. and at international competitions. Notably, Delicato’s entry was named “Best Shiraz of California” awards at the 2001, 2002 and 2003 California State Fair Wine Competitions.

The 2004 Delicato Shiraz lives up to its heritage. A powerful scent of spicy cherries practically bursts from the wine as you pour it. The flavor is a bit more subtle, tasting of blackberry and cherry. Overall, the flavor is balanced and quite smooth. The finish lingers with a fruity spiciness. The start and finish of this wine are so wonderful that they overshadow its pleasant flavor.

The box is what Delicato has branded its Bota Box. It features similar construction to other wine boxes, but includes a FlexTap pushbutton-style spout. The pushbutton is easy to handle with one hand, even when tilting the box to get those last few glasses, and is free of annoying post-pour drips.

It’s little surprise that Delicato’s Shiraz is the best selling brand of that variety in the United States. If they can keep up with demand while maintaining quality, they are likely to hold onto that distinction in the coming yeasrs.

Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon – Box

Price: $12
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 5 liter box
Our Rating: 7 out of 10

Almaden Cabernet Sauvignon in a box has the distinction of being the best of a group that is, at best, fair. At least in the Midwest US, three brands have dominated the cheap box business – Franzia, Vella, and Almaden. These boxes are always 5 liters in size, and may sell as cheaply as $8 for a box – a little over a buck per bottle-equivalent. The Merlot and Cabernet varieties tend to cost a bit more, generally $10 – $13 per box. Even for those, the cost is incredibly cheap and the box preserves the wine for far, far longer than a bottle would…

With the price comes middling quality. The Almaden boxed Cab is probably the best of the 5 liter group, at least from a red standpoint. It has a pleasant, if faint, fruity/floral aroma. Its color is deep garnet. The flavor is of berries, with fairly strong tannins. The overall impression is a bit thin and light. A couple of times I detected a very slight, fishy off-note. The finish offers a lingering hint of pepper.

Wine lovers are likely to find that the Almaden Cabernet comes up a bit short compared to some lower-end bottled fare or more costly, premium boxed wines (usually sold in 3 liter boxes), but it can still serve as a good buy for economical party or barbecue use, or for a “glass of red wine a day” consumer looking more for a great value than subtle flavor. A box should hold the flavor for a month, making for much easier management than bottles. Spicy food might be a good pairing, too, since it demands less subtlety and more flavor.

One plus to the Almaden Cabernet is the reliable spigot. While for some reason Franzia box spigots often dribble like incontinent octagenarians, the Almaden Cab pours and shuts off with nary a wasted drop. The spigot is of the rotating knob type – perhaps slightly less convenient than the push-button style, but effective nonetheless.

Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel 2003

Price: $8
Variety: Zinfandel
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

If you are looking for a pleasant red wine with broad appeal, Ravenswood Vintners Blend Zinfandel 2003 may be the ticket. In the glass, it has a pleasing deep red color. This wine has the characteristic fruitiness of a Zin, with black cherry predominating and a hint of vanilla and dried fruit. It’s soft on the palate, with a modest finish. It may not be a truly great Zin, but for the price it’s a fine choice to accompany beef on the grill or any other dish where a gulpable red is needed.

We found this bottle at Sam’s Club, holding down the low end of their red wine display at under seven bucks.