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.

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.

 

 

 

M&S re-imagines the Oregon Treaty

meyer-vineyards-2Just when you thought Canada has finally established itself on the global wine map, something crops up that makes it abundantly clear that there is still a long way to go.

As the price tag in the photo shows, it seems that not even Marks & Spencer is aware that Canada is a sovereign wine-producing nation – even though Canadian wine is nothing new for the retailer.

Despite a bottle that clearly states the wine’s origins — British Columbia, Canada — someone in the M&S machine decided to print a run of shelf tags that declare this Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir as a product of the USA.

Perhaps the powers-that-be at M&S have decided that the Oregon Treaty of 1846 had a more disastrous outcome for the British, placing the Canada-USA border much further north than its current path along the 49th parallel.

How else could they have confused a wine from Canada’s Okanagan Valley  as being from the USA?

The wine in question is Meyer Family Vineyards Pinot Noir Oakanagan Valley 2014, which sells for £18.99 per bottle here in the UK.

Back in September this year when I visited the Meyer Family Vineyards winery in Okanagan Falls, British Columbia, it was, as far as I could tell, still on the Canadian side of the border. Unless something went drastically wrong between then and now, I believe this is still the case. It’s also fairly unlikely that the Americans mounted an opportunistic land grab during the recent election campaign.

wpid-dsc_0068.jpgView from the Meyer tasting room

Along with several other wines, I was able to taste the 2013 vintage of the Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir, their entry-level version of this varietal wine. I can’t say for sure if the wine made for Marks & Spencer is made in the same way as the one sold in their home market, but these were my observations:

Meyer Family Vineyards Okanagan Valley Pinot Noir 2014

On the nose it has aromas of red berries, boiled sweets, forest floor and mushrooms along with brambly, spicy notes. Aged in older barrels with no new oak, this has plenty of red berries on palate with medium acidity. It is not one bit astringent, which is a characteristic that can plagues other entry-level pinots. Very enjoyable. — September 2015

Tasted: The Outsiders of Languedoc

wpid-dsc_0689.jpgWhen I first heard of the group of wine producers known as The Outsiders, I had visions that they were a band of outcasts akin to those conjured up by SE Hinton or even Camus.

I was clearly over-romanticising. The Outsiders in this case are anything but a band of misfits and societal outcasts. Instead, they’re a group of winemakers. All of them upstanding citizens. At least as far as I could surmise.

This is a group of winemakers operating in Languedoc-Roussillon who come from all over the world and from a variety of walks of life but, crucially, are not native to the region. What they have in common is their active decision to settle in Languedoc-Roussillon to make wine.

There are times when calling oneself an outsider is something to embrace. When it comes to the bureaucratic labyrinth that is the regulatory framework of the French appellation system, being an outsider is often seen as a disadvantage. The stubbornness of the appellation system is no place for an iconoclast, where decades of tradition are preferred over ‘frivolous’ notions of commercial viability, free enterprise and experimentation. Despite this, it seems that these Outsiders have been able to overcome, or embrace, the bureaucratic machine and carve out a niche for themselves.

As part of their effort to market their wares to UK merchants, this group of international winemakers (they come from all over the world, from America and Australia to the United Kingdom, Switzerland and yes, within France itself) hosted a small tasting in London back in early May.

Looking back on my rather shabby notes, I can see clear evidence that this was a decent tasting despite having experienced the onset of a head cold that same morning. First, I managed to write notes against every wine on the list, a clear sign that I neither grew bored with the wines, nor daunted by their numbers. Second, the greasy fingerprints left behind on the paper suggest that the spread of charcuterie and cheese on offer was more than adequate. Of course, as the photo below shows, reading the chicken scrawl that is my actual notes does present a bit of a challenge:

wpid-dsc_0715.jpg

 

As a tasting that included a broad range of wines from across the Languedoc region, it is hard to make generalisations or make sweeping statements about the producers. Quality levels were high, but there were obvious differences among the producers in terms of what they are trying to achieve. Some are aiming for affordable, accessible wines, while others are aiming for something a little more profound. In other words, you won’t be having any flashbacks to that time you bought vin en vrac from what looked like a petrol pump behind a dusty shed.

If I’d had the foresight to, say, scribble down scores for each of the wines I tasted, I’d have a much easier time selecting my favourites from this group. But where is the fun in that?

Anyway, enough of my digressions. Here are my highlights from a good bunch of wines. Some of these winemakers are still seeking distribution here in the UK, while some are available to buy from various merchants and supermarkets, although I’ll be darned if I can remember which ones.

Chateau Rives-Blanques Occitania Mauzac Limoux 2013

A still white wine made from the mauzac grape, this is a rich wine that is matured in oak and offers up stone fruit flavours. This is a delicious wine that has a lot of heft and fruit behind it while still being dry

Domaine Sainte Rose Le Pinacle 2012

There is quite a lot to like about all of the wines of Domaine Sainte Rose, but if I had to narrow down my choice to just one, it would be Le Pinacle 2012. Consisting of 95% syrah and a 5% dash of viognier, this has the style of Cote Rotie with a lush palate and medium body. It has an attractive earthy character backed up by red fruits and the potential for a long life.

Chateau d’Angles Grand Vin Red 2010

La Clape is one of the great wine regions of southern France and this producer has brought some Bordelais swagger — complete with red trousers — to the area. The grand vin is a real pleaser, with a high level of mourvedre in the blend to make a deeper, bigger wine that has an attractive balance of fruit and earthy flavours.

Chateau Beauregard Mirouze Fiare 2010

I might be at risk of selecting too many ‘top’ wines from this tasting, but this was among the standouts from Chateau Beauregard Mirouze. With 18 months of barrel age, this displayed dark fruits (prunes and raisins) and had a deep, broody, earthy, chocolatey character to it. In many ways it was sunshine in a glass.

Domaine Saint Hilaire The Silk Chardonnay IGP Pays d’Oc2012

In the past I was never a big fan of chardonnay from the south of France. At times it seemed flabby, overripe and lacking any real character or complexity. But this is something different. It could very well be a competitor to decent Burgundy, having a healthy but not excessive oak treatment, not to mention a real elegance and finesse about it. Close your eyes and you think you’re drinking something from the Cote de Beaune or even the Cote d’Or.

Domaine La Madura Grand Vin Blanc 2014

This was a delight, a barrel-fermented, sauvignon blanc-dominant wine.Fermented and matured in older barrels, this older oak treatment is immediately noticeable on the nose, while on the palate it is rich with citrus and stone fruits, and has a long finish.

Domaine Turner Pageot La Rupture 2013

Another white wine that grabbed my attention. This was a lot like a white Bordeaux to me, made of sauvignon blanc but in a restrained style that is free from the more modern take on SB that has proliferated the market. Fresh, mineral and a good match for food. Not a whiff of cat pee to be sniffed.

Domaine Modat Le Plus Joli 2011

This is warm, spicy and very much a syrah from the south of France. With 80% syrah and the balance consisting of grenache and carignan,  this Rousillon displays licorice and nutmeg, with fine tannins and a long finish.

Chateau Saint Jacques d’Albas Le Chateau d’Albas Minervois 2012

A blend of syrah and grenache, this is aged 12 months in barrel and offers up all that is good about Minervois. It is warm, with fine tannins and a backbone of ample red fruits .

Domaine de Cebene Les Brancels Faugeres 2012

All of the wines from this producer were excellent, but Les Brancels seemed to stand out to me. This was what was described as the ‘house blend’ of syrah, grenache, mourvedre and carignan. I love the wines of Faugeres and this displayed all the characteristics that keep bring me back: warmth, earthy aromas a flavours, a good backbone of fruit and a fine complexity that pulls it all together.

Not mentioned…

Two other producers that were at the tasting but without a mention here were Le Clos du Gravillas and Domaine Le Clos du Serres. This was for no other reason except that my notes for these producers were a bit too sparse (likely because I was chatting rather than writing) for me to be able to write a recommendation.