of great wine reviews that don't deliver
It's a bummer. Reading an expert's glowing review and being confronted by a totally different wine on the table. You wonder - is it me, the critic or the bottle?
In fact, in many instances, you are not alone in being disappointed. Moreover, it's often the bottle, which is at fault. Three years ago, I tackled this problem in the Post. At that time, I was blown away by a preview sample of Bodegas Castaño 2000 Hecula. It was rich and seductive with ripe black cherry flavours and lingering, seamless, gently cedary finish - a best buy triumph at under $13. The wine I tasted was made from 100% Monastrell (aka Mourvedre) grapes.
Then a few months later it was released at Vintages. Sadly, it was not the same. What happened was that this edition of Hecula was specially-blended for its American distributor with 20% Tempranillo and 10% Merlot. Good but not great. I tracked down the original 100% Monastrell in a Sydney, Australia wine shop. It had all the depth of flavour and structure of the original that I had previewed with owner Daniel Castaño. To see the original article from January 25, 2003 click here.
Selling a totally different blend under exactly the same label isn't all that unusual, especially with less expensive, high volume wines. My article, however, created a major stir because I disputed Robert Parker's high 90+ point score attributed to this wine, which appeared in the Vintages Catalogue.
The question is, with identical labels, how can consumers tell which wine they are getting - the real McCoy or something specially blended for their market? Part of the answer has to do with "lot" numbers that appear somewhere on the bottle of most wines. These identification numbers were the result of new EEC regulations, which required codification for tracking purposes.
Lot numbers are not all that easy to find. They can appear anywhere - on the capsule, under the capsule, etched in glass, on the back label, etc. Also, there is no guarantee that the lot number will actually indicate a different batch or bottling of the same wine. They may simply tell us the labeling date of the same wine. Fortunately, the majority of better wines will be very consistent from lot to lot.
Nevertheless, I vigilantly track the "lot" number of every bottle tasted, which appear in my Vintage Assessments publication. Unfortunately, most wine writers and even wine competitions, don't bother with these codes. I was amazed to discover that neither does Vintages. The LCBO's key concern is squeezing marketing dollars out of suppliers. For listings, money spent on LCBO promotions gets 40 points, while quality only 20 points (out of 100)! To see the scoring systems for new listings click here.
All of the forgoing has to do with a problem with the just-released Bodegas Castaño 2003 Hecula (718999) at $13.95. When I tasted it at last year's Vancouver Playhouse Festival, I found it to be disarmingly delicious - bright, quite well structured, zesty and loaded with ripe black cherries.
It finally hit Vintages on January 7th - but sadly not the same batch - fine but gets no cigar. The Vintages Catalogue spews out Parker's terrific 90-point rating. Upon checking, I discovered that Vintages omitted the first line of his review, which reads "this is a custom cuvee made for American importer Eric Solomon, so the wine sold in other markets will be different blends and/or selections." Given the controversy, I was surprised that Vintages excluded this disclaimer, especially as Vintages doesn't bother tracking the lot numbers on the wines they buy.
To check things out, I invited the Ontario agent to a comparative blind tasting of three Heculas - the one we have here vs. two different lots I recently purchased in Madrid. A certain degree of tension filled the air, as we tasted them. For my palate, there was a definite difference. The news is good is that to my surprise, the best was the one at Vintages (although not as good as the one tasted last year). The two from Spain were decidedly less well structured. As some 400,000 bottles of Hecula are produced, some batch variation is not totally unexpected. And unlike the 2000 vintage, all are apparently 100% Monastrell.
Moving on, last Saturday another Parker high scoring Spanish red was released at Vintages. Again Vintages quotes the Parker 92-point score, which is awesome for something costing only $15.95. Expectations for Capçanes 2003 Mas Donis Barrica Tinto (705863), however, were dashed with the two bottles tasted.
Not that it, nor Hecula above, are in any way disagreeable wines - I have no hesitation in recommending either of them. The problem is that they just that they just didn't live up to expectations. Mas Donis was very pleasant, fairly intense and well structured with slightly spicy, baked plum and bittersweet chocolate flavours. However, it simply is not in the Parker 92-point region.
I discovered that Mas Donis comes from the same American importer as Hecula. Huge quantities have poured into the American market, so much so, that prices at some stores have been cut to $9.99, which is rather amazing for a 92-point Parker rated wine. The key questions are: Is this is the same quality that Parker initially rated? Are all the rumours that producers and/or agents send "special" bottles to wine critics to review possibly true?
To avoid disappointment, let me suggest that you take LCBO quoted reviews with a grain of salt. Critics, in turn, owe it to their readers to detail lot numbers and insure that their reviews are not taken out of context. They should also check follow-up shipments of their highly rated best buys to see if they live up to initial scores. As for Vintages, surely the time has come for LCBO to provide complete reviews and monitor the lot numbers of what is being bought and sold.
Those searching for a Valentine's Day highlight should consider one of my personal favourites from last Saturday's Vintages release - the wonderfully delicious La Baume 2001 'Selection' Shiraz/Cabernet (730523) at $15.95. It has an extremely deep, intense, purple colour and a complex, smoldering fire nose, which is loaded with ripe plum and dried cherry fruit. Solid, dry and amazingly well-structured for the price, it is very flavourful with gently smoky, faintly herbal, plumy, dried cherry flavours with a lingering finish. There are 497 cases of this in Vintages and the lot number L256/05 appears on the back label. To check availability click here.
National Post readers wishing to receive the current Vintage Assessments newsletter (covering the Vintages releases for next Saturday & from last Saturday - including exclusive current ISD reviews) can have it e-mailed today and receive a $20 discount - click here.
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