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.

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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.