The Winos’ Tasting Series: negotiating the nascent négociant

By Jesse on April 26, 2008

Cameron Hughes is a name fast becoming familiar to the savvy young wino. A producer who sources grapes from all the world, Hughes represents an innovative, enterprising take on the familiar French concept of the négociant. Rather than grabbing up batches of wine from all over a particular region and blending them together haphazardly, however, Hughes takes a more nuanced approach: as phrased in the winery’s press kit, his strategy is buying “super-premium surplus juice from other wineries and growers around the globe” and then “bottling this ‘silver bullet’ and branding it as one of our ‘Lots,’ thus preserving its extreme value.”

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Regions are listed on the label, but not vineyards; the sequential “lot” numbers on the bottles thus also preserve the anonymity of Hughes’ various sources, allowing those wineries to continue selling their wine at whatever price they desire without customers flocking to the less-expensive Cameron Hughes version. These “mystery source” wines have gained a reputation among discriminating, budget-minded boozehounds as offering the quality of top winemakers without the prohibitive sticker price. Previously available only at your local behemoth big-box retailer, Cameron Hughes wines are thankfully now sold direct on the website. The good people at his operation sent the Winos a few bottles to try out.

First up was the 2006 Cameron Hughes “Lot 26” Sauvignon Blanc (Marlborough), which exploded upon hitting the glass with a big, grassy, herby nose… classic New Zealand in all its glory. Erik got some pear, Andrew appreciated some mineral, and Noah chased some honeysuckle. As we often anticipate with Sauv Blanc from Kiwi-land, some citrus and tropical fruit made itself apparent as well, but several people noted how very ripe this particular fruit smelled; Noah likened it to an “overripe grapefruit, like that doesn’t even need sugar anymore.” And Erik rounded things off with some floral notes, musing that it smelled like “passing a field of wildflowers along the side of the road.”

The Winos found themselves split on the palette of this wine. It must be admitted that I’m a big NZSB lover, and I thought the Lot 26 represented the type really nicely… big ripe grapefruit and a clean mineral element throughout. Andrew, however, is not the world’s biggest Sauvignon Blanc fanboy, and unfortunately this one harassed him with more “tart and citrussy” character than he tends to find tolerable. Noah agreed — a little more tart than usual for New Zealand. He tasted some pineapple, but more specifically “the inside, where it meets the core, not the delicious outer side.”

I disagreed strongly with these guys, totally loving the terrific grapefruit and the feature-length, mouth-coating finish. To me, this was a $18-$22 NZSB at least, and even the Winos who didn’t enjoy it as much thought the $11 sticker price was a fair one. (The press kit invited us to compare this wine to the Kim Crawford, which I think was appropriate… in doing so, I found this one riper and a little less manic. Not that I dislike manic Sauvignon Blancs, mind you. Manic is good.)

Next up was the 2006 Cameron Hughes “Lot 50” Riesling (Mosel-Saar-Ruwer). No indication was given of any Prädikat designation (i.e. Kabinett, Spätlese, etc.) that might tip us off to the sweetness level, so we weren’t sure what to expect… but far be it from the Young Winos to cower at the prospect of the unknown. The nose was citrussy without being sharp; I immediately barked out “lemon cake with vanilla icing,” which met with approval. Erik picked up some coconut, and Emily thought there was a honeyed character. The nose changed a bit with some swirling, and began to smell exactly like the “crumble” on top of blueberry muffins (several people pointed out that this substance has a name, streusel… apparently we have some real epicures in our ranks). Max expanded on that note by suggesting the wine smells like the mini Entenmann’s muffins that come in a little bag of four or five. By this point we were starving and decided to drink it.

The wine had great body, round and soft; Erik found it a tad syrupy, and I agreed, but it achieves this viscosity without a lot of the sweetness that usually tags along. Emily got lemon notes, Noah enjoyed some “grapefruit with brown sugar,” and Andrew commended the “nice bright fruit.” Max thought it was a bit sour, dropping the trademarks “SweeTarts” and “Sour Patch Kids” as descriptors. I agreed that there was a tartness to it, rendered all the more prominent due to the low sweetness, but I was intrigued by the green, almost limey element, not one I typically associate with German Riesling. Noah and Andrew in particular were big fans of this interesting, distinctive bottle; again, the $12 sticker price seems more than fair for this level of quality, even if it’s not exactly the most typical Riesling in the world.

Our next sample took us south to Argentina for the 2004 Cameron Hughes “Lot 51” Malbec (Lujan de Cuyo, Mendoza). This wine scored big on the nose, with coffee and tobacco notes making themselves immediately apparent — to me, it smelled like that dank little cigar room in Dedrick’s Pharmacy when I was a kid, the unmistakable odor of which would completely overwhelm me if I ever managed to get the sliding glass door open before my mom hauled me off. Andrew picked up some “dark, mysterious, inky fruit,” Noah got chocolate, and Erik got prune. Max said it was “earthy” and picked up some blueberry, while Emily joined the fray by citing blackberries.

The palate skewed more heavily towards the smoke and tobacco notes; the fruit, meanwhile, wasn’t all too apparent. Max thought it was woody, and Noah appreciated some black pepper and cloves. Emily liked the earthy, spicy character, dubbing the wine “flavorful,” and while Andrew agreed, he was missing some crucial body elements. Erik felt similarly, complaining that the body wasn’t quite there — to him, the palate came in a bit watery. I sympathized with their gripe and also could’ve used a little more weight; however, I couldn’t find fault with the supple smoothness and delicate flavors (Emily echoed these sentiments, finding the wine “not tannic” and “inoffensive”). At $13, this was a nice find, and several Winos expressed interest in pairing it with a pepper steak or a london broil.

Last up was our sole domestic offering, the 2005 Cameron Hughes “Lot 43” Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley). “Now this I like the smell of,” enthused Max upon pouring a glass. The nose was big and welcoming, reminiscent of a chocolate and raspberry tart. Andrew described a dark, smoky character, Emily got figs and papayas, and Max got raspberry and raisins (not to be outdone, Noah got craisins). A big, fruit-forward bouquet, just like you want on a Zin, without some of that fiery alcohol that sometimes attacks your nostrils.

The palate came in a little lighter on the fruit than we anticipated; to be fair, the bar was set pretty high after that nose. What fruit there was, however, was nice and round, and complimented by a lively smoke element. Noah observed the lack of “the overwhelming jamminess that some Zins have.” Max thought it was gamey, and would drink it with “roast duck or venison” (he then instructed his personal manservant to buy 30 cases, and to bring around his Rolls Royce). Andrew, a huge Zin fan, was the only member of the assembly who wouldn’t buy the bottle again — he complained that it was a bit hot and had an undesirable “bite.” For $12, though, the rest of us were willing to forgive such an imperfection; Max summed up the general opinion by stating that “this is a definite winner.”

We’d discovered several affordable, well-made wines over the course of the tasting, and achieving this kind of consistency from a budget-priced producer is a real challenge. The consensus was that Cameron Hughes appears to be a dependable destination for good bottles at prices we love — even if the wines themselves aren’t as mind-blowing as some of the hyperbolic rumors might have led a few of us to believe. Apparently the label is releasing new wine all the time, and the Young Winos definitely look forward to seeing what’s next.

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Look but don’t touch; that’s a bit precarious; Emily describes her eye surgery in too much detail for Noah’s taste

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I always look my best when framed by wine bottles; Zinfandel makes Andrew’s head spin; a well-received red

The Young Winos of LA — edutoxicating Los Angeles since 2005.

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