Jug wine vs. cheap wine
The question: "Tell me about some good 'jug' wines."
My instinctive response: "There's no such thing!"
But what IS the difference? Is there really any distinction between inexpensive premium wines at $5 for a "fifth" (750 ml) and the modest wines that sell in larger bottles, often with jug-like handles, for a couple of dollars less?
That's a fair question, and there's no better way to make a wine taster honest than a "blind" tasting, in which wines are served from plain, unmarked glasses to cloak their identities.
I selected about a dozen wines - some red, some white - in the $4 to $5 range. Then I added a popular red jug wine - Gallo's Carlo Rossi "Paisano," which is $4.99 for a 1.5-liter jug, the equivalent of $2.50 for a fifth - and a "super-premium" wine, Hogue Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot from Washington State, $10.99.
As it turned out, a quick "blind" tasting cleared me on the "snob" charge. It was easy to recognize both the jug wine and the super-premium. The Washington wine showed a depth and complexity that simply wasn't present in the other wines. The Carlo Rossi wasn't actually repellent, but it was, well, not "winelike," with a slightly fizzy sweetness and grapey fruit that made it seem more like a soft drink than grown-up wine.
But the good news is that the $5 wines, by and large, were good values, many of them well worth tucking into your picnic hamper. Two of them - a $4.99 Walnut Crest Merlot (from Chile, despite the English name) and a $4.49 René Barbier "Mediterranean White" from Spain - were so good that they actually scored close to the super-premium wine on style points, ranking as exceptional values.
Gallo's Hearty Burgundy ($4.49), once a jug wine that's been upgraded to a premium wine with a real cork and slender bottle, also rated well among the reds, as did Concha y Toro 1999 Chardonnay, Chile ($4.59) and Georges Duboeuf 1999 Sauvignon Blanc, Jardin de la France ($4.99) in the whites.
So what's the story on jug wines, then? In my opinion, wineries like Gallo are simply targeting a different market with jug wine, which is something like a soft drink with alcohol added. If you like it, there is nothing wrong with that style. But if you enjoy good quality table wines in the European tradition, then you won't be satisfied with the jug style. Jug wines are a little cheaper, but to me, the difference is worth a dollar or two per bottle. Give the wines that scored well in my test a try, and I think you'll agree.
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Two good inexpensive reds
In a "blind" tasting, this wine rated well above its modest peers. Ruby in color, quite dark in the glass, it shows ripe black fruit and caramel aromas with vanilla-scented oak. Soft and fruity, it's not a "challenging" wine but pleasant and accessible; a good wine for by-the-glass restaurant service, and a near-unbeatable value in the $5 range. (Feb. 14, 2001)
FOOD MATCH: A straightforward matchup with a rare steak.
Masi 1999 Modello Rosso delle Venezie ($7.99)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a light dinner of turkey meat and peas in a cauliflower puree atop lightly curried lentil cakes.
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Vol. 3, No. 5, Feb. 19, 2001