Wine Review: 2008 Mercer Dead Canyon Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon

21 11 2011

Decidedly ghetto label, questionable colour scheme, killer wine.

Time to enshrine another bottle in the pantheon of Killer Value Wines and expand the already-sizeable place in my heart for Washington State, because cheap Cabernet normally doesn’t taste like this.  The Dead Canyon Ranch from Mercer Estates winery vastly outperforms its price point ($20ish CDN) and screams “house wine” to any self-respecting Cab fan.  This was sadly my last of several bottles purchased from Highlander Wine & Spirits, who (I believe) have an exclusive on Mercer’s lineup of wines in the city; I have previously written about Mercer’s Merlot on this site, but in my opinion at least, the Dead Canyon Ranch is an even better wine at half the price.

This wine gets its eye-catching name from the place from which its grapes are sourced, the Dead Canyon Ranch vineyard in the awesomely-named Horse Heaven Hills AVA (American Viticultural Area), located alongside the Columbia River on central Washington’s southern border.  Washington State is divided vertically in two by the Cascade Mountain Range, and the climate of the area varies substantially depending on which side you fall.  If you’re in the western half of the state bordering the Pacific Ocean, it’s grey, wet and rainy enough for fictional tween-adored vampires to call it home, whereas if you’re on the eastern half the state, in the rain shadow of the Mountains, it’s a hot and arid (and presumably vampire-free) desert zone.  The wines that have been growing Washington’s vinous legend over the past few years (including SEVEN of them in the top 50 of Wine Spectator’s just-released top 100 wines of 2011) come from the eastern half, which is where Horse Heaven Hills and Mercer Estates can be found.  While the desert heat and sun make it possible for red wine grapes to reach full ripeness even this far north, the notably cool nights help to retain acids and preserve fresh flavours, which is the kind of built-in balance you look for in a top wine region.

Washington, wine-style: Horse Heaven Hills is in green at the bottom.

Instead of being a vivid purple like some Cabs, the Dead Canyon Ranch was a rich opaque maroon colour, and it featured a downright delicious nose of milk chocolate, raspberry jam, blackberry, mint, violets and cloves.  But it’s only after the first sip that the true value proposition of this wine reveals itself, as the impeccable balance of the region is infused into the DCR’s flavour profile.  It explodes with lush sweet fruit without having a steroidally-thick motor oil body or unrestrained alcohol.  It’s weighty yet finessed, structured with prominent but smooth and polished tannins. Despite having a menu of flavours that seems to point towards “fruit bomb” (blueberry, black currant, cherry Nibs, chocolate mousse, anise), it’s neither thick nor heavy on the palate and it has a brightness and a liveliness that persists throughout the warm, clean finish.  It’s not the most complex Cabernet Sauvignon in the world, but it doesn’t pretend to be; it’s just a precision-made, high-quality, value-priced Washington gem.

Stelvin Rating: 6.5/10 (Bonus point because it actually says "Stelvin" on it.)

This is the kind of bottle that you always want to have lying around the house (which means, now that I’m out of them, that Highlander had better have more!) — it’s a great weeknight wine, perfect with BBQ, and an ideal second bottle to open when you have company over.  It needs a bit of an image makeover (if the retro label is any indication), but the questionable marketing probably serves to make it even more of an unsung wine shop hero.  Well worth seeking out…it will convince you with its quality even if it already had me at “Washington”.

90+ points

$20 to $25 CDN

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