This is the second time that a Cameron Hughes wine has graced the electronic pages of this blog, and since the first time was a review of one of my all-time favourite value wines, I had both high hopes and high expectations going into this review. If you don’t know the story about Cameron Hughes and how they source and create wines, it’s covered in some detail here; the Reader’s Digest version is that CH doesn’t grow any of its own grapes but instead buys either grapes, juice, finished wine or fully-bottled wine, usually from established wineries selling excess inventory, and repackages it under its own label at substantially discounted prices. That’s how it should work, anyway…the price equation gets skewed somewhat once the wine leaves CH’s American home market. On the Cameron Hughes website, this particular wine is described as being for sale at the CH online store for $15US. It was also available at Costco in the US at a similar price point. I bought this bottle last year from Aspen Wine & Spirits in Calgary for $33CDN — 2.2 times the price. I feel like NAFTA should have something to say about this.
Cross-border price-gouging or not, this wine still had the potential to be a good value because of the pedigree of its birthplace. Cameron Hughes bought Lot 136 as a recently-made, not-yet-bottled wine from a large Napa Valley producer (whose identity remains anonymous) and then aged it in CH’s own French oak barrels until it was ready for bottling. The Cabernet grapes that went into the wine came from the heralded Napa sub-regions of Rutherford and Oakville, which are both in the absolute heart of the Valley and are where many a multi-hundred dollar bottle of Cab is produced; CH’s winemaker added a bit of Tempranillo (??) into the mix to mould the final wine to his liking before it went into barrel. It is certainly true that Rutherford/Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon does not usually sell for anywhere near $33 a bottle (let alone $15US) and that only an arrangement like the Cameron Hughes business model could result in a wine from that area at that price, so I popped the cork, crossed my fingers and hoped that CH had again worked its magic and gotten me another steal.
At first, I thought I was in luck: the Lot 136 had a pleasing deep, dark ruby colour and a lush nose of black fruit (blackberry and cassis), mint, sweet spice and a hint of dustiness, a textbook set of aromas for Cali Cab. It wasn’t particularly complex, but it was still showing exactly what it was supposed to. Then things got a little carried away. It was immediately noticeable on the palate that this was a thick, fleshy, viscous wine, very full-bodied, beyond what was necessary or expected even from a warm-weather Cabernet. The alcohol level (14.9%) was also amped up a bit too much and stood out with a slight burn on the back end of the palate; while the wine had medium acidity and high levels of sweet, ripe tannins, there still wasn’t enough structure to keep things in check. Big dark overripe fruit was the flavour story on the palate, mainly cooked fruit flavours like blueberry/blackberry pie mixed with cedar, vanilla, cinnamon and menthol notes. That combo of tastes probably sounds delicious, and it was to some extent, but the whole wine was just a bit too loose and overblown to be a winner at over $30.
Lot 136 was still tasty, and still matched up fine with weekend BBQ, and if my Canadian-ness didn’t render me ineligible to have bought this off the CH web store for $14.99, I might have been quite happy with my purchase. But for $33, when the vastly-superior Lot 179 is almost $10 cheaper in Calgary? Not so much.
$30 to $35 CDN
P.S. I had thought that CH Lot 179 (a.k.a. Havens Black and Blue Cab/Syrah) was gone forever, but last weekend I spotted it at Co-op Wine & Spirits’ new store on 16th Ave and 3rd St NW for $25 a bottle. Believe me — ditch the 136 and all the other Lots and buy this instead.