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.

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

On junk science and my (former) dislike of Chilean wine

wpid-dsc_0592.jpgA quick glance at the science section of any major newspaper tells us two things. First, that there is no shortage of academics trying to find the answer to anything and everything in our observable universe. And second, that there seems to be a disproportionate number of scientists devoting countless hours, perhaps even years, to some of life’s least important issues.

Almost all of it is junk science with an agenda behind it, and this fact has been reported widely. It seems, for some reason, that the Telegraph is leading the pack when it comes to reports of junk science, perhaps because, in its endeavour to attract the most clicks and therefore higher ad revenues, it must print anything and everything.

It comes as no surprise that junk science about wine tasting appears frequently, hashing and then re-hashing the same tired topics. Case in point, this week’s round of wine tasting ‘science’ and ‘research’, as reported by the Telegraph and Harper’s Wine & Spirits. At the Telegraph, we read about how wines with lower alcohol are purported to have more flavour than those with higher alcohol. Sure, insofar as the alcohol isn’t masking the fruit and other aspects that make up the wine’s flavour profile.

Then, in Harper’s, we read that Naked Wines, the online retailer, claimed that consumers ‘prefer’ bigger, bolder wines with more alcohol. If consumers want flavour, then surely going for a wine with more alcohol is counter-intuitive? I can only conclude that something doesn’t add up here. I’m going to suggest it’s the science involved. No matter how deeply scientists study the process of wine tasting, no matter how often they might conclude that there is nothing behind it, they are clearly ignoring the fact that there is, and it’s entirely sensory and subjective.

Think of it this way: there are no scientific reviews that I know of that have debunked the science film reviews. Many of the most celebrated films ever made received bad reviews upon release — think Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Casablanca and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski — but no one has claimed that this was because film reviewing is junk science. Nor does anyone say it when the reviews are overly positive.

On the topic of science and subjectivity, let me make a very bad segue and write about Chilean wine. It is no secret that I have an irrational intense dislike of Chilean wine. Mostly, I have found it to represent a vague middle ground in the wine world, a sort of indecisiveness, neither here nor there of flavour and complexity.

If, for example, a merlot from St Emilion represents restraint and a sense of place while a merlot from, say, California, has a reputation for being the opposite of restrained, then a Chilean merlot, by and large, will inevitably land somewhere in the middle. And the middle is not where anyone wants to be, for being in the middle really just means that you’re neither this nor that. It’s the beige minivan of wine, offering as much excitement as a night out at the library.

Except. Except there could be another way. And I might have found it, in all places, at Marks & Spencer. Look beyond the cashmere scarves and the navy blue blazers with those gaudy gold buttons and head straight for the wine aisle, where the selection is anything but stuffy. Indian sauvignon blanc? Georgian orange wine?  A crisp, white wine from Tikves in Macedonia? Check, check and check. On the Chilean front, the usual suspects make an appearance in the M&S aisles.

But what’s this hiding near the bottom of the shelf? A dry pedro ximenez from Chile’s Elqui Valley? Pedro ximenez is a white wine grape best known for growing in southern Spain, where it is turned into a sherry of the same name, often labelled PX for short. PX sherry is dark and sweet, the result of grapes that have been laid out to dry in the sun to intensify their sugar concentration.

With M&X Pedro Ximenez PX, things are rather different. The wine is dry and crisp, not sweet and unctuous. It reminded me more of a wine from the Maconnais region of France, not an oddball white wine made in Chile from an oddball grape. For somewhere in the region of £7, this wasn’t just an acceptable bottle of wine, this was one of the first Chilean wines I’d enjoyed in a long time (a recently tasted bottle of very expensive still wine made in a Champagne style notwithstanding).

Now, this isn’t a perfect wine by any means. Its price is in the lower half of the M&S product suite, so it isn’t necessarily profound or complex. It probably won’t cause any epiphanies any time soon. But it’s interesting and satisfying, something few Chilean wines have achieved for me in the past few years.

And there’s more. M&S also sells a reasonably priced wine made from Chile’s signature red wine grape, carmenere, and it, too, stopped me in my tracks. M&S CM Carmenere also hails from the Elqui Valley and, while slightly more expensive than the PX, represents good value. I expected it to be fruity and innocuous like a generic merlot might be, but instead it was so much more. Oak, spices, excellent fruit on the palate and a solid backbone all make for a bit of a surprise. So PX and CM. Who knew? Until recently I had avoided Chilean wine out of caution. But perhaps I was wrong all along. What I do know is that it had nothing to do with science.

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.

A case of…three? Tussock Jumper Wines

wpid-dsc_0306.jpgFor years, buying wine has been simple. You can buy it as a single bottle or in cases of six or 12. This concept is so simple that an entire UK-wide retail chain, Majestic Wine Warehouse, felt there was no need to sell wine in quantities less than a full case. So they set their minimum at 12. Perhaps this was because their founders believed people would be mad if they didn’t buy them by the dozen.

For decades, anyone walking out of a wine warehouse across the UK did so with a battered Oyster Bay box under their arm, broadcasting to passers-by that they, quite possibly, have a drinking problem.

Now we have this. Tussock Jumper Wines. Sold exclusively through Amazon in boxes of three. Three? Not by the dozen, not by the six and not by the one. But three. This wasn’t dreamed up by a genius of wine retail but instead a genius of internet sales. This is a wine brand with global ambitions, but it’s also a wine brand without a proper home in the UK. Already popular in the Ukraine (its largest market) and Russia, Tussock Jumper lacked a major British distribution channel. In other words, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and everyone else said thanks, but no thanks.

Enter Amazon. We already buy our books, DVDs, electronics and Bosch electric corkscrews on Amazon, so why not wine? As it happens, the boxes of three are not the product of marketing genius but rather out of logistical necessity. Presumably the folks working in the vast Amazon warehouse in Rugeley aren’t yet proficient at counting up to 12 or even six, but they are just fine with three.

So anyway, back to the wine. A month or two ago I received samples of two Tussock Jumper wines, the Argentinian malbec and the South African chenin blanc. The positive is that there was an obvious attempt at quality behind them. The negative is the branding. This wine stands out for one reason and one reason only — its critter label.

Now, it’s safe to say I have a history of castigating critter-label wines. Cute many of them may be, you would have no more success selecting a decent wine by opting for the one with vermin on the label than if you threw rocks at a dozen bottles and drank the one that didn’t break. They are, as I’ve said elsewhere, a mortal sin in wine branding from my perspective.

Many wine brands are developed slowly over time, building on the reputation of a family estate, their place of origin and the skill of the winemaker. With Tussock Jumper, which is a winery that buys its grapes from wherever it can find them, there is no famous domaine, no specific place of origin, no family history to anchor them in the annals of winemaking history. The name itself is a play on words but could be lost on many. What exactly is a tussock jumper anyway? Presumably it refers to critters jumping over tussocks of grass as well as the red jumpers on the label, but I would be surprised if the average person on the street got it in one.

What is the verdict on the wine? In both cases I was mildly surprised. My assumption was that these would be all looks and no substance, their heavy bottles containing liquids displaying notes of battery acid and manure, and little else. But in fact they are perfectly serviceable wines.

The malbec had plenty of fruit on the nose, showing blackberries and brambles with spice and pepper, albeit in a one-dimensional manner that lacked real complexity. On the palate, it was fairly basic at first, tasting like a generic red with a dusty side that presumably came from its oak treatment. Not profound, but not bad either.

The chenin blanc, meanwhile, was a surprise. On the nose were melons, grass, cucumber, stone fruits and wet stones. On the palate it was fruity and dry, with more stone fruits and melon, but again it wasn’t overly complex. I was expecting something flabby and reminiscent of cheap jug wine, but it wasn’t like that at all. Not profound, but again, not bad.

There is just one problem. At £8.99 per bottle, Tussock Jumper has been priced to compete with a vast lake of wine in supermarkets and independent merchants across the land. While I wouldn’t hesitate to order a case of truly fine wine online, I haven’t yet reached that point in life when I want to buy all my wine that way, particularly the everyday stuff selling for £9 or less.

And if it’s yet another big brand wine bottled in the millions, you can be certain I won’t be buying it in threes.