If you’re hosting a holiday party this year, you may be eyeing the wine aisle with consternation — and not just because the labels can be confusing.
Wine is expensive, man. Especially if you need enough of it to lubricate a big family dinner. (Especially especially in an election year.)
But if your concerns have you heading hunchbacked in shame toward the back of the store where they hide the boxed vino, perk up.
Boxed wine is actually a great Penny Hoarder option, and it doesn’t have to taste terrible.
Boxed Wine Isn’t Actually Horrible
Aside from the obvious advantage of being cheaper, buying boxed wine is actually smart for a host of other reasons — so much so that some vintners are starting to sell even their fancy cuvees in cardboard.
Why, you ask? Well, first of all it’s nigh impossible for wine to go bad in a box, either before or after opening.
That’s because of the vacuum-sealed bag inside the box — which you may or may not remember from college. It keeps the wine almost entirely out of contact with oxygen, which means you’ll never open a box to find your wine’s already turned.
(This is true, too, of the almost-equally maligned screw cap… but that closure doesn’t share the box’s ability to keep the wine fresh after opening.)
And that cute little spigot? It works to maintain the wine’s vacuum seal, even after you’ve had a glass (or five), which means you can keep an open box of wine on the counter for weeks instead of just a couple of days, like with a bottle.
And although it’s true that cork allows wines that need it to age with grace, most easy-drinking table quaffs don’t benefit much from sitting in a bottle, or will be drunk too young for it to matter.
Boxed wine also carries a much smaller carbon footprint and you can take it into glass-free zones, like campsites.
But enough about why it’s awesome: Which one tastes best?
The Best Boxed Wine for Your Money
Eight adventurous TPH staffers and I tasted seven boxed wines, ranging from $11.46 to $21.99, to figure out which wine we wouldn’t be embarrassed to serve at a party… after sneaking it into a fancy decanter, of course.
To control the experiment (and our day-drinking-for-work budget), we kept our tasting to a single varietal, or type of grape: cabernet sauvignon.
We can’t say for certain that our findings will hold across varietals. Maybe our least favorite brand just happens to flub its cab, but does a bang-up job on pinot noir or sauvignon blanc.
But even so, some of our results were pretty surprising — and they might just help you nail down those holiday dinner plans. Here’s what we tasted, started with the cheapest option:
Oak Leaf: $11.46
We started with the bottom of the barrel — or rather, the steel tank. (Let’s be real: Walmart’s proprietary boxed wine has probably never seen a day in oak.)
But for its price, this wine put on a pretty good show… although I’d never have called it cabernet if I’d known better. It was way too light in color and had almost no body.
Although the box boasts the wine’s won “90+ medals,” it fails to say from whence those designations were awarded. There’s also no indication of where the grapes were grown. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Many staffers noted a significant presence of acid, but without much tannin to back it up, this wine came across as a little sour. There was a fruity presence in the blueberry or blackberry zone… but the wine’s claim to “a hint of toasty oak” was a stretch.
But staff writer Lisa Rowan called it “totally drinkable,” and even senior editor Heather van der Hoop, who grew up near a wine region and thus has fairly lofty standards, said it’s “the kind of wine [she] would drink… after [she’d] already had a bottle.”
And more than one taster found the flavor oddly reminiscent, scratching their heads until the memory hit them.
“It’s like church wine!” exclaimed editor Caitlin Constantine.
So it might be a keeper if you prefer your drink, as email marketing specialist Colleen Rice put it, with “shades of Catholicism.”
Verdict: Nobody’s favorite… but surprisingly drinkable for such a cheapie. (And possibly what they keep behind the altar!)
Is there such a thing as a “classic” boxed wine?
If there is, this is it. For better or worse, Franzia’s reputation precedes it.
But while this Chilean cabernet’s color and body are a little closer to legit, tasters found it less flavorful than the less-expensive Oak Leaf. Like, a lot less flavorful. As van der Hoop put it, “It doesn’t taste like anything! I could be drinking water right now.”
Most also found it less smooth on the palate, too, noting that it was acrid on the finish.
I was already skeptical before I read the box, which claims it pairs with beef stew, chocolate truffles and “dinner party.” That’s not a pairing, Franzia!
Purchases of this wine do, however, support the Fisher House Foundation. So I guess there’s that.
Verdict: This one has a (bad) reputation for a reason. If you need a box this cheap, pick Oak Leaf instead.
Corbett Canyon: $12.99
Another cabernet out of Chile, Corbett Canyon also designates itself an “award-winning wine”… without specifying which awards it’s talking about.
It also claims to be “Full-Bodied with Classic Hints of Cherry, Vanilla and Toasty Oak,” and yes, all those words are capitalized.
Our tasters had an ambivalent response to this one. Some said it had even less flavor than Franzia, and almost everyone agreed they could taste less fruit — in my own tasting notes, I couldn’t distinguish even a single one.
Three staffers said they straight-up didn’t like it.
But two called it “easy drinking,” noting a nutty, smoky flavor.
“If you put this in a decanter on your table, people wouldn’t be like, this is definitely from a box,” said van der Hoop. “Especially if it was the second thing you served.” In fact, it was her runner-up favorite.
“It’s pretty drinkable,” agreed director of media relations Lizabeth Cole — whose hospitality degree means she knows a thing or two about wine.
Verdict: Not as much of a crowd-pleaser, but a pretty solid option on the cheap end of the scale.
2015 Bota Box: $16.99
The first wine we tried that actually had a vintage, this California cabernet sauvignon actually resembled cabernet sauvignon.
It has a medium ruby color and lives up to its promise of being “medium-bodied,” and it was the first wine we tasted with any noticeable tannin at all.
It was also the first in the lineup with complex flavors. Staffers tasted black cherry, blackberry, plum, smoke and even green tea notes. The majority enjoyed it well enough, though only our photographer, Samantha Dunscombe, deemed it her favorite.
Plus, as Cole mentioned, “the box is really cute.” (I mean, she is the head of our PR department.)
And importantly, the box actually tells you where its awards come from: Its 2013 cabernet sauvignon was voted a Best Buy by Wine Enthusiast; ditto its 2013 Nighthawk dark red blend, which was actually second overall on the list this year.
I would, however, love to meet the person responsible for the fanciful description of the finish as “boisterous.” As our staff writer Lisa Rowan remarked, the drinker’s behavior might be boisterous upon finishing a bottle… but it seems like a stretch for a descriptor of the wine itself.
Verdict: A good middle-of-the-road wine to serve as a base for sangrias or a simple table wine.
2015 Black Box: $17.88
With its opaque, almost maroon color and a nose of tobacco and campfire, this boxed wine from Valle Central, Chile promised to be a whole lot bigger than some of its cheaper counterparts.
And sure enough, it delivered — but not necessarily in a good way.
“That is cough syrup,” concluded van der Hoop. “It’s kind of like purple drank,” said Rowan.
Undeniably flavorful, this wine had a medium-plus body with notes of blackberry and vanilla, a classic characteristic of oak.
But email marketing specialist Colleen Rice and I thought the vanilla characteristic tasted painted-on, like the vintner had dumped vanilla extract in the barrel. And while the dark fruit flavors were big and jammy, they also came across as overstated and artificial.
“It’s not worth turning my teeth purple,” said Rice.
Black Box wines have won many awards from Wine Enthusiast, including Gold Medals and Best Buys.
And it was certainly a denser and juicier wine than most of the others on this list — so if that sounds like your jam (get it?), it might work for you.
Verdict: Although apparently highly rated and relatively expensive, our staffers weren’t on board.
House Wine: $19.99
Ding, ding, ding: We have a winner!
Although it lacked the tannin and acid typical of a cab, this red out of Valle Central, Chile, was easy to drink. It had notes of cherry, plum and blackberry pie, though many tasters thought it was more woodsy or smoky than fruit-forward.
Medium-bodied and smooth, it inspired several staffers to help themselves to a second pour.
“If you gave me a glass of this, I wouldn’t think it was boxed,” admitted Rowan. And editor Caitlin Constantine decided it’s going into her home rotation.
Verdict: This was the most well-loved boxed wine amongst our staff and is a great option for an easy-drinking table red. And although it’s on the pricier end, it’s still a great deal: $20 for the equivalent of four standard bottles.
Owner’s Box: $19.99 (on sale from $21.99)
The most expensive of the bunch, this California cab brought all the traditional characteristics to the table: It displayed notes of vanilla, blackberry, plum and dark cherry, and almost arrived at the classic cassis, or blackcurrant, flavor.
While it had the most tannin of the bunch, it was low in acid and was much jammier and fruitier than the House Wine.
But those black fruit flavors weren’t as cloying and artificial as we found Black Box to be — it was cherry, but “not cough-syrup cherry,” as Rowan specified. And the spice derived from the oak felt well-integrated and smooth.
“It’s balanced!” exclaimed van der Hoop. “It feels like they tried to do more than one thing with it.”
And Cole called it “a gentleman’s box of wine” with a “busy flavor.”
“I think they worked hard on this,” she said.
Still, most of our staffers preferred House Wine for simple, easy drinking — but agreed this one would be much more likely to stand up to a Christmas ribeye roast.
Verdict: Well-liked but not the overall favorite, this wine’s a bit bigger and more complex — it tastes like a real California cabernet. Pick this one if you want a true cabernet sauvignon experience or need to pair your wine with steak.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite boxed wine?
Jamie Cattanach is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder who and WSET-certified wino. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.