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.

Not a drop worth drinking part II: The customer is always right

ID-1009400Harry Gordon Selfridge was famous for his eponymous department store, which transformed the humble act of shopping from an undesirable but necessary evil, to the unnecessary act of frivolity that is the engine of Oxford Street today. Perhaps.

Mr Selfridge has also been credited, along with Marshall Field, for coining — or perhaps just popularising — the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ In the quest to secure as many sales, and therefore as much profit, as possible, the belief was that no matter what the customer said or did (perhaps short of theft), they were always right. Or for those who go to Burger King, they can always have it their way.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this mantra would be the undoing of retail. And perhaps, in a way, it has. Retailers these days give people what they want, not simply what they need. Why else do we have Primark selling cut-price clothing and household goods? Never mind where or how their products are made, and what it does to the environment.

As axioms go, this is as true for clothing as it is for wine. In their quest to satisfy their customers whims, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with whatever is cheap and sells well. Is it what the customer needs? No. Is it what the customer wants? Yes, but only insofar as they want something that is a) cheap, b) familiar and c) uncomplicated. The everyday person wants an everyday wine, so why make it challenging by stocking the shelves with Georgian saperavi or Greek assyrtiko? Only the nerdiest of the nerds will buy that.

If avoiding confusion were the objective, our supermarkets wouldn’t provide excessive choice at all. And yet, this isn’t the case at all. During a recent shopping trip as part of my quest to find a cheap and drinkable muscadet, it was in a tiny Sainsbury’s outlet in the London’s financial district where I was presented with a confusing site. While its small wine fridge at first seemed to contain one of all the usual suspects (one Chablis, one Sancerre, one Soave and so on), this was not the case for our old friend pinot grigio.

For there was not just one, but seven of the devils lined up all in a row, each one as uninspiring and insipid as the next. Logic would dictate that if Sainsbury’s sees fit to sell just one Chablis, one Sancerre and one Soave, then one pinot grigio ought to do as well. But it seems that, in an effort to pile it high and sell it cheap the customer who is always right, loading the shelves with pinot grigio is giving them what they want.

As Lettie Teague wrote in the Wall Street Journal, pinot grigio seems to defy logic:

Watery. Insipid. Neutral. Boring. Few wines underwhelm as thoroughly as pinot grigio. Yet it’s a consistent best seller—retailers tell me that they can’t keep the stuff in stock.

This is not simply a problem at Sainsbury’s, to be fair. And it’s not simply a problem in the UK either. At a vast supermarket of a wine store in western Canada, there stood an entire shelving unit loaded with pinot grigio, each bottle no more compelling than the others. When I asked why they needed to sell some 40 different variations of pino grigio, the shop assistant slumped her shoulders and gave a quiet, frank response: people buy a lot of it, so they stock a lot of it.

Not that pinot grigio is all bad. In the right hands, made with good grapes and with care and attention, it can become a wine of character. As Peter Grogan once wrote in the Telegraph,

Bad winemakers will make bad wine regardless of the grape varieties they’re growing. Poor old pinot grigio, being an obliging and productive old fruit, has fallen in with some rather undesirable types.

Undesirable indeed. Sainsbury’s take note.

Tesco Vintage Claret: You couldn’t pay me to drink it

Swpid-dsc_0378.jpgo it seems bloggers across the UK’s interweb have landed themselves in hot water for taking cash bungs in exchange for promoting products to their loyal followers. Sure, it seems innocent on the face of it. A glowing endorsement for Oreos here, a plug for cosmetics there. All fine and dandy were it not for the fact that the bloggers were willing participants in a sophisticated advertising campaign, handing over their credibility in exchange for a small cash sum.

Wine bloggers and professional wine writers alike receive a great deal of sample bottles, but seldom do they come with strings attached. An envelope of cash to ensure a positive review? It would set Twitter alight.

Of course, in the wine world the forces of supply and demand play a role in preventing the sort of unscrupulous promotional activity that the Oreo biscuit people embarked upon. Simply put, the truly fine wines have no need for such low-brow marketing activities, while the large, generic wine brands (those named after shoeless appendages and water falling over a cliff) wouldn’t be fooling anyone if suddenly a wave of bloggers sung their praises.

Besides, you couldn’t pay me to drink most of this stuff. Take, for example, anything found in the lower reaches of the Tesco wine aisle. For there, wallowing down near your shins, hiding beneath the shelf in the blur of your peripheral vision, are bottles of wine that, if they could talk, might go some way to explaining why Tesco has found itself in so much trouble lately.

Tesco’s Vintage Claret 2013 stares up from that bottom shelf with all the promise and potential that any serious tight wine drinker would expect. But this isn’t made in the image of Berry Bros Good Ordinary Claret, which for £9 a bottle is actually good and could be passed off as something much more expensive when served alongside dinner with the in-laws.

For £4.99, this wine almost spites you for paying £4.01 less for the bottle. It has a nose reminiscent of halitosis. It tastes of bruise plums mixed with rough vodka. And the combination of the wine’s acidity and unexpected tannic finish gives you the impression that as you swallow, your gums are being stripped out of your jaw.

Yes, it is not yet December 31, but I feel confident in saying that this is the worst wine I will drink this year. Even with the Christmas party season still to be endured, it is unlikely that anything else could match this bottle’s character, which can only be described as sheer disdain for the pleasure that is drinking wine.

It does have one positive, though: its finish is mercifully short. The entire experience is over almost as soon as it began.

But it’s not all bad down there on the bottom four shelves. Earlier this year, I wrote about Les Dauphins Cotes du Rhone Villages, describing it as being:

Nothing wrong with it…if you don’t mind red wine that is watery, lacking in any real flavour and encourages you to rinse out your mouth with drain cleaner.

On another one of those occasions when I was trawling the lower reaches of Tesco’s desperate wine section, wondering what the local wine merchant would think if he caught me in the act, I spotted a familiar and potentially stomach-churning.

Les Dauphins.wpid-dsc_0347.jpg

But this wasn’t the rough village version that nearly cleared the room. This wasn’t the usually Les Dauphins Cotes due Rhone Villages  that cost me £6.49 at the time.

This was Les Dauphins Cote du Rhone Reserve.

Having only just managed to smooth over relations with my girlfriend after the fiasco that was Le Dauphins round one, I was tempting fate with this one. And at £5.75 on sale, there was a good chance that it would turn out to be truly awful. Could that be possible? Well there was only one way to find out, I thought.

On the sniff, the thing that caught my attention was that it didn’t make me recoil. Spices, not white spirits, I thought. It was light, but not lighter fluid. Obviously a Cotes du Rhone, with suggestions of pepper, garrigue and red fruits. Not overly complex, but how much complexity comes in a bottle of wine costing less than £6? At this price, the measure of success is whether or not I am willing to pour another glass. Unlike the Vintage Claret, I could actually drink this without doing permanent damage to my digestive system. For the price of a pub sandwich, you’re at least getting fair value for money.

But still, you couldn’t pay me to drink it.

We need to talk about brett

Few things are more satisfying than an earthy, rich red wine from the south of France. Those deep, dark fruit flavours. That whiff of garrigue. The hints of herbs and spices.

But…maybe not the stench of barnyard so strong that it seems as though a horse has dropped its posterior onto your nasal passages.

Blame brett.

Experienced wine drinkers will already be familiar with brettanomyces, that naturally occurring yeast that is either loved or loathed and can enhance or destroy a wine depending on its potency.

Brett can divide a room. The Aussies? They hate it and the style of wine they make down under reflects their dislike for the whiff of barnyard and sweaty horse that it adds to a wine. The French? Well they don’t mind.

At its best, a dash of brett can add a bit of tobacco, leather, bacon, smoke and so on. At its worst you wonder if the winemaker blended in a few bushels of manure from his neighbour’s grazing livestock.

DSC_0074It isn’t often that a wine’s aroma actually makes me recoil, but in the case of this bottle of Les Obriers de la Peir Terrasses de Larzac 2012,which was part of a review case that Berry Bros sent to me, the odour of manure dominated the wine and diminished anything else that was good about it.

I recall the first bottle being a little stinky, but nothing could have prepared me for the blast of cow dung lurking in this bottle’s inner recesses.

For £18.45 a bottle as listed on the BBR site, this wine isn’t exactly on the value end of things. I would expect a higher quality level, but the fact remains that something like brett can’t always be controlled. Had I bought it myself, I would have taken it back — and that’s saying a lot because most of the time I like a little barnyard in my wines. It’s precisely the reason I prefer the earthy wines of the Rhone and Languedoc to the typical laser-sharp Aussie shiraz.

UPDATE: A day after opening this bottle, the overpowering aroma had diminished and fell away to the background, although there were still clear barnyard notes. This wine is apparently not known to be bretty, so did I misinterpret it? It could have been something else, but it doesn’t change what I first picked up when I opened the bottle.

So what is this thing called brett and how prevalent is it? Jamie Goode did an excellent job explaining brett back in 2003. In short, it is a yeast — a unicellular fungus — that appears regularly in winemaking. It is often believed to spoil a wine, but this is the topic of hot debate.

During the winemaking process, all of the yeasts that exist in the grape juice usually get eliminated as fermentation progresses and the alcohol level rises. Normally, all these critters disappear when fermentation is complete, but if there are sugars and nutrients left over, this can open the door to our little friend brett.

Brett is a big fan of juicy, opulent red wines (like the Obriers de la Peira above) that are made with ripe grapes, have higher alcohol levels, high pH levels and low acidity. It likes to lurk in the vineyard on the grapes as well as in the winery. Good hygiene and clean winemaking equipment can go some way to holding brett at bay, but the fact that it exists on the grapes themselves means that it can pop up any time it likes. Filtration helps to hold it at bay.

At lower levels, brett is often one of the main contributors to a wine’s aromas and complexity. For example, it has a long history in Bordeaux wines, but its effects have been reduced over the years as winemaking practices have modernised and improved.

I’ll come out and say that I don’t mind a little bit of brett. But only a little. I draw the line at the point when my wine glass smells as though it’s filled with manure.

Supermarket house wine: Don’t go there

photo 2

There I was, yet again, standing in a supermarket wine aisle on a Saturday night, my eyes glazing over as I was feeling overwhelmed by a sea of cheap wine.

I hadn’t walked into the store with any intention of buying wine. But confronted by all of the cheap bottles in front of me, I wondered if I could find something drinkable for less than £5; something that didn’t remind me of ethylene glycol, which is becoming increasingly difficult these days.

Previous attempts to find a sub-£5 wine have brought mixed results. I recall a French wine that rough that even the slightest whiff of its abominable nose nearly threw me into convulsions; nearly all of it made its way into a pasta sauce that gave me a roaring hangover.

Then there was the £3.99 Lidl Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon, which was something of a success given that it neither turned me off nor sent me to the hospital. But it was as boring as dating a maths graduate and, given the name on the label gives away its penny-pinching pedigree, wasn’t inconspicuous enough to take to a dinner party without outing oneself as a miser.

And then there was the experience I had this past weekend.

Ever since I first spotted the Sainsbury’s House wine range, with their ominous black labels and similarly ominous low prices, I couldn’t resist. I could have tried any other supermarket’s house wine and the outcome likely would have been the same. But on this occasion I was in a Sainsbury’s and so this is about Sainsbury’s house wine only.

To be completely fair to Sainsbury’s, consumers want to spend £5 or less on wine, so they are providing people with what they want, even if the economics involved leave few options when it comes to the final product. In other words, you can’t expect much from cheap wine.

Nevertheless, I was optimistic. Having a little bit of knowledge about wine, I followed simple guidelines when choosing from the plethora of options before me: I chose red over white because that’s what people say you should do, to trust cheap red wine over white wine. I went for store brand because I couldn’t possibly believe a supermarket would put its name to anything to awful. And finally, I opted for Old World over New World because surely the traditional European producers have been doing it long enough not to poison me.

Let’s start with the Sainsbury’s House Red Wine, priced at £4.25. With an aroma of lacquer remover and the flavour of cherries mixed with hair perming fluid, it is not exactly what I had in mind when I read on the label that it tastes of ‘ripe raspberries and cherries.’

Being thin and watery, as well as devoid of tannin, it probably has a more successful life ahead of it as wind shield washer fluid than an alcoholic drink. The first thing that came to mind as I tried it was that it reminded me of those wines you get for £5 a bottle in a nasty pub. And that’s because it probably is.

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What I wasn’t expecting was what happened next. Knowing that Cotes du Rhone, even when cheap, offers good value for money and a relatively high level of quality, I had figured the pick of the bunch was the Sainsbury’s House Cotes du Rhone, coming it at £4.75.

It would have helped if I had read Matt Walls’s piece on supermarket house wines before making my choices. But that would have been neither fair nor in the spirit of this exercise.

The bottle says the wine boasts of “ripe red fruit flavours” but apart from an initial blast of sweet cherries and currants, there isn’t much else to this wine except disappointment. Sure, there is acidity and tannin there, but neither of these is of any use when it is completely devoid of flavour.

For the first time in a while, neither bottle saw much more than a second pour, and that was just to verify that my initial observations were correct. Being averse to dumping wine of any kind, the bottles now sit forlorn on my counter, with no purpose to their existence.

All of this has led me to conclude that it really is nearly impossible to find a worthwhile wine for less than £5 in a British shop unless your intended use is anything but drinking. Brake cleaner? Check. Degreaser? Check. Lacquer remover? Check. But an alcoholic drink? I think not.