Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon: Don’t bet on it

dsc_0053.jpgA dark horse, according to common wisdom, is an unknown competitor whose odds of winning are difficult to determine. While the phrase comes from the world of horse racing, the most famous example of a dark horse in recent years is the Leicester City Football Club, which managed to win the 2015-16 Premier League despite being coached by a man seemed better at getting fired than winning games.

When it comes to wine, the concept of a dark horse than that in sports, particularly when all is revealed the instant it hits your lips. Whether or not it is a winner becomes instantly measurable. Therefore it seems strange that a new wine has taken the brand name Dark Horse, but perhaps I shouldn’t reach too much into it. Or should I?

Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 comes from…somewhere in California — the back label says the company is base in Modesto — and sells for £8 in your local supermarket. The marketing guff goes long on the usual fluff: “Bold flavors (sic) of blackberry and black cherry, supported by firm tannins, brown spice and a dark chocolate espresso finish.

Enticing.

When I think of Californian wine, I am always brought back to memories of trip that took me through Napa, Sonoma and Santa Barbara. Forever will the landscape, the sunshine and the scents in the air be etched in my memory. Californian cabernet should display a few hallmarks: dark fruits such as plums and black cherries, toasty oak, herbs and spices, and a medium to full mouthfeel.

So how did our Dark Horse deliver? I have to confess I had high hopes for this one, even if the entry point for a great Californian cabernet in the UK tends to be about four times more expensive. With its promise of black fruits, a strong backbone of tannin, a hint of spice and chocolate? What’s not to like? I had visions of tasting a wine that stood as a showcase of this grape variety in the Golden State. I ignored the fact that, since this wine is merely labelled ‘California’, the grapes likely didn’t come from a highly prized terroir in Napa or Sonoma, but instead a vast factory vineyard in the Central Valley where much of the state’s cheapest wine originates. Think Lodi rather than Stag’s Leap.

Certainly on the nose there were aromas of black fruits, with prunes and blackberries mingling with, perhaps, chocolate and coffee. It could have been great had it not been overpowered by the ferocious aroma of alcohol — quite a feat given it’s a fairly restrained 13.5%.

In the mouth it’s not all that much better, no matter how many of the reviews on the Sainsbury’s website gave it five out of five stars. The first sensation to pass over your tongue is the burn of alcohol, followed by something sour and then finally a microsecond of black fruit and potentially coffee and chocolate before it leaves an aftertaste of yet more alcohol that will leave you reaching for your glass of water. If there were bold tannins in this wine, as they claim, they galloped away long ago and left behind only a mild backbone of tannin. When I think bold tannins, I think of a young Barolo and how it can cause your tongue to curl. Not so with the Dark Horse Cabernet Sauvignon.

Visit the Dark Horse website and you will be greeted by a dark and brooding marketing exercise that hypes up the brand’s apparent quality, claiming, “Anyone can have a great label, but it’s what’s inside that counts.”

But wait, there’s more.

Dark Horse is possible because of the unstoppable visionaries who pour everything into creating these shockingly good wines. Based in Modesto, CA, this tireless team has taken Dark Horse from complete unknown to a real contender.

Leading the charge is Beth Liston, a winemaker crazy enough to believe that with the right planning and technique, a reasonably priced wine could actually be ridiculously good.
Pretty bold if you think about it.

The website, in fact, is impressive. It is mobile responsive, features slick photography and storytelling, there is just enough information on the wine and a lot of attention is paid to the winemaker, Beth Liston. There’s even a video about her, which, I will admit, is well made and drew me in.

The story seemed great. Beth is passionate about wine, wants to be creative, wants to challenge perceptions and, above all, wants to make the best possible wine she can at the lowest possible price. How can this not be an amazing story?

You have to find your way to the nether regions of the website to find the answer to this question, to where you find out that Dark Horse is just another label produce by E & J Gallo.

I can only assume they omitted Gallo from the label for a reason.

Clos Sainte Anne Pomerol: You can’t sell it for that much

dsc_0049.jpgWe’ve been hearing a lot about how Lidl and Aldi are taking the UK supermarket sector by storm in recent years. The national press is awash with articles about how the two German discount grocers account for 10% of the UK market. That Aldi has overtaken Waitrose to become the sixth-largest supermarket. And that the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda and Morrison’s have been quaking in their boots as more shoppers turn to the discounters for better value.

It’s the same for wine as it is food. Aldi and Lidl have grown famous for their cheap affordable wine selection. Countless articles in the Daily Mail and other newspapers about how they’re selling top-shelf wines at bottom-shelf prices have probably helped. People appear to have taken notice. Earlier this year I read an article in the Guardian that said one in every 13 bottles of wine we buy in the UK is sold at Aldi (a higher percentage than the supermarket’s share of the grocery market).

And yet. I’m not so sure we should be running out to stock our cellars with much of what they have to offer. At a recent tasting of Lidl’s Christmas range, it was challenging to pick out clear winners. It was far easier to find the duds. On the whole, their selection of white wines proved to be the most palatable, followed by some pleasant though fairly straightforward champagnes and sparkling wines. It was the selection of red wines that garnered the strongest reactions of the negative persuasion.

What Lidl does best is deliver standard groceries at the lowest possible price they can achieve. When you buy a tub of butter or a wheel of camembert or a bag of bratwurst, you have a good idea of what you’re getting for the money. It’s not nearly as opaque as produce from Planet Organic, where you know they haven’t made an attempt to squeeze margins for the benefit of customers. If Lidl is attracting affluent customers who know the value of a pound, Planet Organic is attracting anyone who doesn’t.

Where the entire Lidl business model falls apart is with wine. Unlike dairy products or sausage or angle grinders, wine isn’t an item where you can keep squeezing margins without seriously affecting the product. This is why their attempt to sell finer wines — because let’s be honest, it isn’t exactly ‘fine’ wine — has received such mixed reviews. It’s all fine and dandy to sell a cheap and cheerful Bordeaux for less than £10 as many merchants do, but this same business model is less successful when you try to sell a St Julien for £13.99 or a Pomerol for £14.99. There are reasons why wines with these communes on their labels typically cost a lot more than this.

This brings us to Lidl’s Clos Sainte Anne Pomerol 2013. At £14.99 a bottle, it’s not exactly cheap by discount supermarket standards. And being from the 2013 vintage — even if Pomerol fared better than most other parts of Bordeaux — it started life with a disadvantage. The final of three poor vintages in succession in the Bordeaux region, 2013 was probably the worst of the bunch. While July and August provided nearly perfect weather, they couldn’t make up for a bad spring that delayed the vines’ vegetation cycle and made it difficult to achieve ripe grapes. Some said it was the worst for 30 years.

Perhaps, then, my comments on this wine are unfair. But let’s not mince our words. It’s bad. And at £14.99, we can chalk it up to being cheap plonk. Given the poor vintage, this merlot is almost Burgundian, being lighter in colour and lighter in body. The nose offers up very little, with some red berries and a few hints of Pomerol-correct aromas, but apart from that it is fairly nondescript. It’s when it touches your lips that things go south. If its nose at least hinted at its potentially great contents, in the mouth all it does it urge the drinker to spit it out. Rather than tasting a finely made French merlot, I was beginning to wonder if it had accidentally been filled with one of Lidl’s factory-farmed Cimarosa red wines. Perhaps something Chilean. If we’re lucky.

And it’s not as though I was simply being a wine snob among a crowd of more reasonable people. Next to me were two others who spat out their Pomerol — neither of them possessing a single cell in their body that could be confused for being a snob. Much later on, someone at the event spotted UNDRINKABLE  scrawled on my book and asked which wine received that review. When I said it was the Pomerol, she checked her booklet and said that she had made a similar notation.

Could four people be wrong?

So there you have it. While it’s fine to cut the margins on greenhouse-grown tomatoes that people long ago accepted to be flavourless, you can’t source good Pomerol for £14.99. And you certainly can’t shouldn’t sell bad Pomerol for that much either.

BC wine has come of age

It’s been a long time since my last post but now that the summer is nearing its end I thought I’d share what is to me a new name in BC winemaking.

In recent years I have gone out of my way to spend time in the Okanagan Valley each time I travel back to British Columbia to visit family, but this year has been different. A shorter trip and different priorities made it virtually impossible to carve out a few days to visit what is historically the prime winemaking region of the province. 

Thankfully there is little need to travel to the province’s interior to taste the best wines these days (with a few exceptions). And while some of the best wines come with a price premium, there are still a few gems that represent reasonable value.

The wine in question today comes from BC Wine Studio — Siren’s Call Syrah 2013. Sourced from vineyards in the Similkameen Valley near Cawston, BC, this is a top syrah without the sticker shock that comes from other wines, such as those from the more established labels such as Black Hills. 

At around $30-35 a bottle, it is a good $10 less than competitors. This doesn’t mean it is a lesser wine. It is medium-bodied with aromas of black cherry, pepper and black fruits, with further cherries and dark fruits on the palate, with complex spices and pepper to finish things off. It is reminiscent of an Old World syrah with its restraint and dryness, topped off with a hint of New World fruit and sweetness. 

A weekend in La Clape – Part 2: Highlights from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio

dsc_0242.jpgSo despite being led astray by my SatNav and taking a detour through every village in the Languedoc, eventually we made it to Chateau l’Hospitalet. Never mind that we were two hours later than anticipated, arriving long after the sun had gone down.

Last time I visited Chateau l’Hospitalet, the weather was practically inhospitable. A relentless, icy wind blew for the length of the weekend, worsened by bouts of driving rain that made any trip into the outdoors about as attractive as shopping on Oxford Street on a Saturday afternoon.

Thankfully this year the conditions were much more becoming of southern France. On Saturday morning we awoke to relative tranquillity. No gale-force winds or sideways rain. Which is a good thing for an event centred on vine pruning and watching a fluffy brown dog sniff out truffles.

Anyway. The dogs I can discuss in another post. Today we’re here to discuss the primary reason for visiting Gerard Bertrand’s flagship estate: his portfolio of fine wine.

Just prior to lunch on a Saturday morning we sat down for a tasting of 10 wines from the Gerard Bertrand portfolio representing a broad cross-section of properties and styles in the region. The intention was to showcase the release of new vintages, 2014 for the white wines and 2013 for the red wines. Here are my thoughts. The first four wines are white (in green text), the other six are red wines (in red text).

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2014
A blend of grenache blanc, vermentino and viognier. Medium lemon in colour with stone fruits, peaches and marmalade on the nose, as well as vanilla. In the mouth, it has a lush feel with further stone fruits and a creamy quality, with an element of minerality to balance things. Quite forward on the nose but very enjoyable.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2014
A blend of roussanne, vermentino, viognier and bourboulenc. More restrained on the nose when compared with the Sauvageonne blanc. This is very clearly a roussane/viognier blend given its aroma, with citrus, stone fruits and hints of oak coming through. Medium body, it offers up further stone fruits in the mouth and has a long finish. Very good now but will clearly improve.

Aigle Royal Chardonnay Limoux 2014
A 100% chardonnay originating from Roquetaillade, the fermentation begins in vat and is then transferred to new barrels at the mid-fermentation stage. Light lemon in colour, this wine has restrained aromas of peaches, citrus and oak. With a creamy mouthfeel due to barrel fermentation, this wine is delicate on the one hand but with substantial power in the background. Very good.

Cigalus IGP Aude Hauterive 2014
A blend of chardonnay, viognier and sauvignon blanc from Bizanet. This comes from a biodynamic vineyard where 70% of the wine is fermented in new barrels and 30% in steel vats. Malolactic fermentation is performed on some of the barrels. This wine has beautiful aromas of peaches, cream, vanilla and marmalade, with a distinct banana characteristic as well. In the mouth, further citrus and peaches come through. Very, very good.

Chateau La Sauvageonne Grand Vin 2013
A blend of grenache, syrah, mourvedre and carignan. Deep ruby red with black fruits (blackberries, plums, black cherries, blueberries) on the nose, with hints of strawberries and black currants. On the palate there are more black fruits with a good backbone of tannin and acidity. This is a classic grenache/syrah blend with good fruit and is not too overpowering. Good.

Chateau l’Hospitalet Grand Vin 2013
Always a favourite of mine, the 2013 vintage of Chateau l’Hospitalet’s Grand Vin — or any other Languedoc wine for that matter — is truly worth seeking out. A blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, this wine is aged in new barrels for 12 months with periodic stirring of the lees. This wine is deep in colour with dense aromas of black fruits. Still young and restrained, it is possible to pick up the hallmarks of this style: black fruit, garrigue, herbs and a distinct aroma of olives. With good acidity and tannin, this wine will age well. Very, very good.

Chateau de Villemajou Grand Vin 2013
Another favourite, this is a blend consisting of carignan, syrah, grenache and mourvedre where the carignan and syrah are vinified in whole bunches with carbonic maceration for 10 to 18 days, while the grenache and mourvedre are vinified in the traditional manner after de-stemming, with maceration of 15 to 20 days. Deep ruby red in colour, this has beautiful aromas of black fruits, blueberries, black currants, cherries and violets. in the mouth there is yet more black fruit with undertones of red fruits. This is very clearly a Corbieres wine with quite a bit of power without being heavy. Very, very good.

Aigle Royal Pinot Noir 2013
A 100% pinot noir wine from Roquetaillade, the grapes are de-stemmed completely before fermentation, with the wine ages in French oak for 10 to 12 months, where it undergoes malolactic fermentation. Light rub red in colour and offering up vibrant aromas of red berries, spices and vanilla, as well as strawberries and red currants. This has a  delicate feel in the mouth, with good acidity and a tannic backbone to give it ageing potential. Very good.

Cigalus Aude Hautervie Rouge 2013
A blend of an incredible seven different grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah, grenache, carignan and caladoc), this comes from a biodynamic vineyard where the syrah and carignan are vinified separately in whole bunches, while the rest of the grapes are de-stemmed and vinified in what they describe as the traditional way. A deep, dark ruby red colour, this has an intense, brooding nose of black fruits (prunes, plums, black currants), while in the mouth it offers of strong acidity and tannin with more layers of complex black fruits and a dash of vanilla. Full bodied, this is a powerful wine with plenty of life ahead of it. Very, very good.

Le Viala Minervois La Liviniere 2013
A blend of syrah, grenache and carignan, Le Viala comes from a small parcel of land at Chateau Laville Bertrous. The grapes are thoroughly sorted prior to fermentation, with the carignan and syrah transferred to the vats in whole bunches where they undergo carbonic maceration, while the grenache is de-stemmed and left for a traditional maceration for three weeks. Deep ruby red, this has complex aromas of garrigue, olives, herbs and black fruits. It is very much a Minervois, but of a fine quality, with black fruits and solid acidity in the mouth. It’s quite weighty but well-rounded with plenty of tannins to give it a long life. Very, very good and among the finer wines of the region.

 

 

 

How to survive New Year’s Eve

ID-100277It’s the midway point between Christmas Day and the New Year that is the most daunting of the festive period.  For many, there will be the inevitable leftovers of Christmas dinner to polish off. And for others there will be the repeat dinners at the homes of in-laws and aunts and uncles that not only require making room for yet more turkey and yet more bread sauce, but monotonous motorway journeys and interminable conversations with Uncle Harry about the current status of his gastrointestinal plight.

While the indulgences of Christmas itself are now a fuzzy memory, you know that there will almost certainly be yet more to come on New Year’s Eve — if not before. So, if you are going to make it through to New Year’s Day with your dignity (as well as your liver) intact, you need a plan.

Rule #1: Don’t drink during the day

I can hear your cries; only a killjoy enforces a no-drinking rule during the day. But how many of us feel genuinely good in the morning following an entire day of indulgence? If you stay away from the booze until the evening you are at least giving yourself a fighting chance. While this is a good plan for New Year’s Eve itself, it also applies to the entirely of the festive season. Everyone has that family member who starts sipping the whisky from 11am each day over Christmas. Just ask yourself, do you want to be that person?

 Rule #2:  Pace yourself

In many ways this is connected to the first rule. The festive period is a marathon, not a sprint, and the opportunities to revel are plenty. But if you have any intentions of remaining upright and conscious at midnight on NYE, you might want to sip your drinks slowly rather than guzzle them as though it’s your last day on Earth.

For some, this can prove challenging. I recall one New Year’s Eve when a friend of a friend clocked my bottle of Irish whiskey, apparently his favourite, and chugged it as though it were Powerade. On the same night, someone who had been drinking neat spirits out of a pint glass ended up lying prone in the middle of the street with traffic having to divert around him. Hint: If you’re already slurring your words before 8pm, you’re doing it wrong. No really, you are.

Rule #3: Take a break

One the best things I did this year was to sip my drink slowly and stop drinking wine midway through dinner at my company’s Christmas party. By the time the event ended and I headed for home, it was almost as though I hadn’t drunk anything at all. If you have any hope of lasting until the wee hours of New Year’s Day, there’s no harm in putting the drink down for a while.

Rule #4: Beer (and fizz) before wine…

This is perhaps the most important and was the inspiration for this blog. Looking back at every celebration that ended in pain, a key component of my undoing has been mixing the wrong kind of drinks at the wrong time. Most of the time, this undoing was caused by the (over) consumption of some form of sparkling wine following an evening of drinking more than enough still wine, the only outlier being an ill-fated decision to knock back an after-dinner espresso martini a couple of months back.

Let’s not skirt around the issue: sparkling wine can and will get you drunker faster if decided to mix it with other drinks. While often regarded as a myth, there is some evidence that carbonated alcohol, such as Champagne, accelerates inebriation.  Anecdotally, I would agree. Sadly, this sort of reaction does not bode well for New Year’s Eve if preferred drink for midnight is Champagne or one of its analogues. There is also some evidence that beer or another other fizzy alcoholic drinks can have the same effect, but I can say from experience that the only culprit for me is sparkling wine, whether English fizz, Cava, Champagne or Prosecco.

Rule #5: Eat

Your liver typically process one standard drink per hour. The quicker you knock them back, the harder and longer your liver has to work after you drink. Growing up in Canada, the typical night out didn’t start until well after 9pm, which usually meant having a sensible dinner earlier in the evening. Upon moving to the UK in my mid-20s, I quickly realised that priorities were much different as nights out usually began straight after work. Anyone in the UK who has Canadian or American friends knows what I am talking about.

The  fact remains that your body absorbs alcohol more slowly following a meal, up to three times slower depending on the type of food consumed. Think about it; that can make all the difference between a romantic midnight kiss with your significant other at midnight or making an unsuccessful and embarrassing pass at your best friend’s sibling.

A weekend in La Clape – Part 1

dsc_0239.jpgI had an inkling something was up as we crept through the Friday afternoon rush on the northern outskirts of Montpellier.  But it wasn’t until we were stuck in the narrow Roman streets of Béziers that my suspicions were confirmed. I had fallen victim to a fat-finger error when programming my SatNav.

So it goes that what should have been a one-hour drive to Narbonne from Montpellier–Méditerranée Airport became a two-and-a-half-hour mission through the Languedoc’s most frustrating and congested roads. There are surprisingly few alternative routes available when you’re stuck in a traffic jam in the French countryside. Credit to my passenger, who, despite having to endure my complaints about a suspiciously faulty SatNav, maintained optimism that we would reach our destination prior to our grandchildren graduating from university.

The destination, Chateau l’Hospitalet in La Clape, is the seat of Gerard Bertrand’s wine business and we were headed there for its annual vine pruning celebration. Most of us approach the task of pruning anything in the garden with a degree of reluctance, keen to avoid it in the hope that someone else will do the job for them. But for the vignerons of France, especially those in the Languedoc, vine pruning is just as important as making the wine itself, so it is important to honour the labour that goes into it. It is also a great excuse for a party.

As the website for Gerard Bertrand says:

Vine pruning is without a doubt the most difficult task of winegrowers. This meticulous work represents the beginning of the vine life cycle and every winter the wine growers are working to give birth to what will be the fruit of a whole year’s work. It is with these excessive temperatures that on our vines, the wine growers accomplish 15 million pruning movements with infinite precision influencing the next harvest as much as the vine for the rest of its life.

It was for this reason that we were headed to Gerard Bertrand’s vineyard for a celebration that included outdoor activities, a wine tasting and a gala dinner. All we had to do was get there. But first we had to endure a drive fraught with calamity. First the wrong route on the SatNav. Then an attempt to deviate from the ill-fated route to find the toll highway only to second-guess my judgement and turn back. And finally when presented with the last opportunity to pull onto the autoroute à péage we found ourselves whizzing by in a blur of confusion and ineptitude.

It’s amazing what crosses the mind when you’re stuck in a line of traffic in the centre of Béziers.  None of it will do anything to get you to your destination any faster. Even when the only option is to keep pressing on, the mind wills you to give up. To pull to the side of the road and throw the SatNav into the River Orb. To get out of the car and lob obscenities at the traffic that is impeding your journey.

It’s not as though I have no sense of direction. Some would say I can read a map and remember a route better than most. And it’s not as though I haven’t driven this route in the past. In fact, I’m well-acquainted with the roads between Montpellier and Narbonne. But I’m also a man of a certain age and, therefore, I’m predisposed to errors not only of the navigational variety but also of the male brain. Get in rental car. Turn key. Pull out of parking lot. Immediately and with blind confidence turn the wrong direction or willingly follow the wrong route on a SatNav.

In the end, we made it. But only with enough time to check in at reception and race up to our room for a wardrobe change before heading straight to the restaurant for drinks and dinner. The real work would take place the following morning in the form of a masterclass tasting of Gerard Bertrand’s latest vintages. That will have to wait for next time.