Sunday, February 1, 2009

Cam the Man: Cameron Hughes Wine

A few years ago, a man named Cameron Hughes had a great idea. Buy up super premium wine that would ordinarily end up on the bulk market and ultimately blended into not so premium wine, then put it in a bottle as is with his Cameron Hughes label on the bottle. Or, even better, if the wine was bottled but unlabelled, just slap a Cameron Hughes label on it. If the sale of a winery led to orphaned wine, he'd be there to buy up the leftovers. If a product line ended, Cameron Hughes would be there, too. If a winery just needed to raise capital or clear inventory, he'd also be there.

There's a name for this sort of middle-man wine trader, a negociant. This is actually quite common in Europe, but Cameron Hughes was the first negociant in America to really tap into the premium market and start bottling the unadulterated good stuff under his own label.

It took a while to get this idea off the ground, but now Cameron Hughes had bottled over 100 "lots" of wines in his Lot Series. Each "lot" originates from a particular region or (anonymous) winery. They're never backblended with lesser wine, so what you see is what you get. If you buy a Cameron Hughes Lot 75 Oak Knoll Cabernet, you know you're getting Cab from a sub-appellation in Napa, probably from a single producer.

Now, as awesome as paying $12 for wine that would cost $30 in its "native" bottle sounds, there are some drawbacks. Cameron Hughes keeps costs down by constantly moving inventory. He bottles then sells the wine at a pretty quick pace. However, some wines really do need some time in the bottle to integrate. Many upper-end producers (i.e. the ones who orphan their wine occasionally) age their wine extensively in new oak and would bottle age even after barrel aging. So in many cases you'll be buying a wine that is very young. But if you can let it rest or decant a young Cameron Hughes wine, you'll typically get something that outperforms the price.

In other cases, the wine really wasn't up to par to go into a $30 bottle. But even in those circumstances you're not going to get a bad deal paying $10 or $15 per bottle. The bottom line is, at the very least, you will get expensive tasting wine since it was made using costly methods even if there's some moderate imbalance in the finished wine.

Here a few Cameron Hughes wines I've tasted over the last year.

Cameron Hughes Lot 95 2007 Chilean Meritage: This is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere. The nose is perfumed with some nutmeg. This one was a bit surprising in that is was ready to drink immediately out of the bottle. There's little structure, but it's an amiable, easy drinker that's right for the price.

Score: 83-85
Price: $8

Cameron Hughes Lot 75 2006 Oak Knoll Cabernet Sauvignon: This is a textbook example of what a really oaky, young wine tastes like. It smells like vanilla and cedar planks. It tastes like oak, and the oak tannins are mouth coating and almost creamy in texture. However, the wine is very smooth and has a nice lingering finish. There's some good juice underneath the oak, though, and maybe in a year or two more fruit will be showing. This is a style that many people would love even at this juncture, and a great example of why you don't need to pay $30 for a Napa Cab in this style. Buy this, sit on it for a year or two, and you'll definitely have something good if not very good (especially if you like oaky wine).

Score: 84-86 (but could definitely develop for the better)
Price: $12

Cameron Hughes Lot 64 2005 Red Wine: This is an everything but the kitchen sink blend of Tempranillo, Carignane, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Petite Verdot. It took about 2 hours of decanting for this wine to emerge, but at that point it was kickin. It started with some tar, them some floral and herb aromas. The palate had a mix of blueberry, chocolate and coffee. The tannins initially were a bit bitter, but the wine softened as it aerated. There's a ton of structure there, too. Definitely was one to buy young and cheap, then sit on. Too bad I only had one bottle!

Score: 85-87 (and again could definitely develop for the better)
Price: $10

Cameron Hughes Lot 51 2004 Mendoza Malbec: This was a great find. Plummy fruit and violets on the bouquet, and a soft subtle impression on the palate. My notes at the time indicated it had a "minerality" and tasted like "liquid velvet" because of the seamlessness and soft tannins. In retrospect the bouquet was pretty shy, but this just tasted really good and was rather elegant.

Score: 89-91
Price: $12

Cameron Hughes Lot 49 2004 Priorat: This is a blend of Grenache, Carginan and a handful of Bordeaux varietals. If you've tried an old vine Zinfandel, now imagine that with a little leathery/barnyardy Brettanomyces and volatile acidity (VA). This wine immediately out of the bottle was pretty harsh on the nose, probably due to the vinegary VA blowing off. After a couple of hours the brooding concoction came into focus. Now there was ripe aggressive berry and leather at the forefront with mocha and herbs in the backgrounds. The wine had an ultra concentrated ripe berry flavor with persistent drying tannins and great acidity on the finish. It's really a fun wine that's a bit primal (instead of elegant), and a wine that came together nicely over time. This one might develop positively with some more time as well.

Score: 88-92
Price: $20

Cameron Hughes Lot 25 Sparkling Wine: I've had this on several occaisions and haven't been disappointed. This is a top-end Napa sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir using the traditional methode champenois. It's about 10 years old now and has a yeasty, bready nose. The bubbles are refined and small, which is what I prefer in a sparkling wine. The palate is dry with good acidity, which again are requisite for a good sparkling wine in my book.

Score: 88-90
Price: $20 (or even less at Cost Plus)

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