Alice White Merlot 2004

Price: $6
Maker: Alice White
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: Bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Last month, we tried the Alice White Shiraz, and now we find that Alice White Merlot 2004 shares some characteristics. Notably, the wine was significantly improved on the second day after opening. The Merlot, like the Shirax, started off as rather thin and undistinguished, a typical inoffensive but forgettable Merlot. A bit of exposure to oxygen, though, brings out the flavor. The aroma is mostly spice with a hint of licorice. The flavor is mostly cherries and dark fruit, with some oak and soft (after breathing) tannins.

This might be a good wine for a “glass of red a day” drinker on a budget. The wine will improve for a day or two, and even if the first and last glass aren’t quite as good, well, it’s cheap. It’s not a bad choice for an inexpensive dinner wine – just be sure to let it breathe a bit.

Wine Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Price: $10
Maker: Wine Block
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 1.5 liter box
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

Wine Block Cabernet SauvingonOne’s immediate thought on viewing the packaging for Wine Block Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 is that the small box couldn’t possibly hold two bottles of wine. The box has a footprint less than 5″ square, and stands less than six inches tall. The base of a champagne bottle would take up as much shelf space, but through the miracle of cubic efficiency the Wine Block boxes hold a full 1.5 liters. The packaging is rather rather generic in appearance, but still has a bit of style.

One’s next impression (after pouring a glass) is that this is amazingly good wine. Its fruity, spicy aroma practically bursts from the glass. The wine is full-bodied and fruit-forward, with blackberry and cherry flavors mixed with light tannins, spice, and oak for pleasing complexity.

Despite the surprising capacity of the tiny cube, it was empty all too fast. It’s tempting to run out and pick up a few more cabs, but for the sake of our Box Wines fans, we’ll have to try the other varieties.

Wine Block is a product of Kendall Jackson with its own website. They call their products “blockbuster wines”, and in the case of the cab, they aren’t exaggerating.

Little Penguin Pinot Noir 2004

Price: $6
Maker: the Little Penguin
Variety: Pinot Noir
Packaging: Bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

In spite of the movie Sideways, which has caused a boom in the sales of Pinot Noir wines, that variety isn’t one of my favorite reds. I prefer the bigger, bolder cabs and Shirazes. Nevertheless, I picked up a bottle of the Little Penguin Pinot Noir 2004 based on my experience with some of their other varieties. To my great surprise, the Penguin came through with a very nice, very affordable wine. This Pinot is smooth and fruity, with cherry predominating. The finish gets more spicy. The Little Penguin Pinot isn’t a classic Pinot Noir, but it’s pleasant and smooth, and can be served with confidence for casual entertaining.

The Little Penguin web site says,

Pinot Noir has developed quite a reputation as a delicate grape that, when handled properly, can become an elegant wine. the Little Penguin’s Pinot Noir is no exception. the Little Penguin Pinot Noir has rich, spicy flavors with a smooth, clean finish.

. Their site is a fun one and worth a visit – check out the Wine Personality Test.

Twin Fin Merlot 2003

Price: $7
Maker: Twin Fin Wines
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: Bottle, screw cap
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Twin Fin Merlot 2003 is impressively drinkable. We liked the Twin Fin Shiraz when we tried it; it, too, featured a slightly off-putting screw cap. Don’t be fooled by the cap – this Merlot is very smooth with a reasonably full body. Its flavor is black cherry, mixed with oak and enough tannin to give it a little bite and complexity. This is a great wine for informal dining, cookouts, and general-purpose enjoying with friends.

Others are finding Twin Fin to be an easy-to-enjoy brand, too. The Mingaling blog lists it as a fave, and Robert Mayfield of the Statesman Journal says,

It was the Twin Fin, 2002 California Merlot, $10. It has what some people call grip, others call bite, and what I call, “hey, where you been all my life?” A merlot with tannins, flavor. A merlot that stamps its feet and demands attention. Earthy tannins, plum, berry and mushroom flavors, with some edginess to it. Incredible for $10 and a screw-cap.

Twin Fin is producing some very pleasant wines… now I just have to hunt down the pinot noir and cab.

Robert Mondavi Private Selection Zinfandel 2003

Robert Mondavi Private Selection ZinfandelPrice: $10
Maker: Robert Mondavi
Variety: Zinfandel
Packaging: Bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Zinfandels are less common on the shelf than varieties like Merlot and Shiraz, so we were excited to give Robert Mondavi Private Selection Zinfandel 2003 a try. The aroma was a bit weak, with the emphasis on spice and berry. The flavor had plummy overtones, with a hint of sweet berries. It finished with a bit of oak, spice, and blackberry.

The winemaker at Robert Mondavi Private Selection says,

Our 2003 Zin has plenty of jammy blackberry and plum character to grab your attention. The fruity aromas and mouth-filling, ripe flavors will tempt you with notes of chocolate, violet and peppery spice. Hints of cinnamon, vanilla and smoke linger in the background. All of these seductive flavors come from Zinfandel grapes grown in California’s North and Central Coast vineyards. Grapes from the sunny foothills and valleys of the North Coast impart soft, smooth layers of dark fruit and chocolate, while the Central Coast grapes add aromatic spices. Barbecue some ribs and pop the cork on this food-friendly Zin for the ultimate Zinful experience.

This isn’t a great Zin, or an overly complex one, but it’s a wine that goes down easily and will be tolerated by a many different wine drinkers.

Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2003

Price: $8
Maker: Jacob’s Creek
Variety: Shiraz
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

Jacob's Creek ShirazJacob’s Creek Shiraz 2003 is a typical great Shiraz value… a price way under ten bucks a bottle, a nice combination of fruit and complexity… what’s not to like? The Jacob’s Creek Shiraz has a spicy aroma with a strong hint of licorice, and mixes berry and plum fruit with balanced oak and tannins. The finish is slightly astringent, but not unpleasant. It would be a great accompaniment to any kind of casual dining, particularly for beef or spicier fare.

Read more about Jacob’s Creek Shiraz here. The wine has won a fair number of medals, and it’s easy to see why.

Wyndham Estate Bin 555 Shiraz 2003

Price: $9
Maker: Wyndham Estate
Variety: Shiraz
Packaging: Bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Wyndham Estate Bin 555 ShirazWyndham Estate Bin 555 Shiraz 2003 is from the reported birthplace of Australian Shirazes, and it’s a typical, very good example of an inexpensive wine that doesn’t taste cheap. It has a nice, plum and cherry fruitiness, with oak and spice strengthening into the finish. We found it on sale for a paltry $6, and even for several dollars more it’s a nice combination of shiraz flavor and value.

The NoMerlot blog says of the 2002,

The nose is thick with ripe plums, berries and spices that follow through with balanced dark fruit flavors, soft oaky vanilla, licorice, and peppery spice. A well-integrated wine with a satisfying and lengthy finish.

The Grape Juice blog was less impressed by the 2002, noting, “It was a tasty wine, but as far as offering something outstanding or unique, I don’t think it was anything to rave about. ” Adventures in Food and Wine said, ” it is a fruity and spicy shiraz with a bit of creaminess on the tongue.” Cwangdom found a hint of tobacco, though I didn’t notice this in my bottle.

Check out the Wyndham Estate website – there’s quite a bit of content, including a food-wine pairing game.

Funky Llama Cabernet Sauvignon 2004

Price: $8
Maker: Funky Llama
Variety: Cabernet Savignon
Packaging: Bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 8 out of 10

When we reviewed the Funky Llama Shiraz, we mentioned the yellow artificial cork that’s so bright it practically glows in the dark. The Funky Llama Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 features the same colorful stopper, complete with llama.

The Funky Llama cab, like the Shiraz, isn’t particularly distinguished. The aroma is faint, mostly of spice and berry. The flavor starts with promise – a sort of plummy roundness. As it progresses, though, the tannins kick in and overwhelm the fruit. The finish, like the Funky Llama Shiraz, has a slight bitterness. Serve this one with grilled beef, and avoid serving it solo.

This brand gets high marks for branding and packaging, but the contents of the bottle don’t match the expectations established by the exterior.

Frei Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon 2002

Price: $20
Maker: Frei Brothers
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Packaging: 750 ml bottle, natural cork
Our Rating: 9 out of 10

OK, at $20 per bottle, Frei Brothers Cabernet Sauvignon (Alexander Valley) 2002 is a bit pricier than we usually review here at Box Wines. But, we had a chacne to try it, and decided to pass along our notes. The first thing that strikes one about this cab is the strong, spicy aroma. The flavor is consistent with the nose, characterized by a smooth, layered spiciness. The fruit is a bit weak, but herbal notes, oak, and a hint of chocolate augment the spice for a robust, complex flavor.

I tend to be partial to fruit-forward reds, but I liked this wine a lot. It accompanied a superb filet, for a stunning combination.

The elcatavinos blog said about the 2000 vintage,

This wine is a very deep red with medium legs. This wine has a leathery nose. Has good fruit flavors with earth and leather mixed in. Has a clean finish albeit relatively short.

If you are looking for a not-so-cheap cab with a rich flavor that differs from the typical cab, try the Frei Brothers Alexander Valley version.

Oak Creek Merlot

Price: $4
Maker: Oak Creek Vineyards
Variety: Merlot
Packaging: Bottle, artificial cork
Our Rating: 7.5 out of 10

We like affordable wines here at Box Wines, and this Oak Creek Merlot is just about the most affordable bottled wine (barring jug wine and the like) we’ve seen. We found an aisle display with the wine on sale for $2.99 a bottle. That’s definitely affordable! Unfortunately, the wine was just fair. We found it to be a bit on the thin side, with weak fruit and stronger tannins. It was better than what one might expect for three bucks, but not as good as wines just a bit more expensive.

We’d recommend this primarily as an alternative to cheap box wine. Compared to, say, a Franzia Merlot, this will taste a bit better and look a lot better at your party. For even slightly more discriminating wine drinkers, consider spending a couple of bucks more for a Forest Glen or Little Penguin Merlot.