Posted by: Andy Kelly
We’ve all had wines that we’ve been disappointed with once they’ve been opened and supped. We’ve all gone through that initial excitement of cracking open the bottle, allowing the wine to decant as the tension builds until the point that it’s poured into the glass. We’ve taken the first smell and first tentative taste, and all pulled that face…that disappointed face.
We may have even given it a whole glass to warm up only to find that the second and third doesn’t improve leaving us completely dissatisfied. It’s a common theme and it’s one that we’ll never escape because that’s the joy of discovering wine and, for me at least, my bouts of dissatisfaction are becoming few and far between!
But have you ever had a wine that has stopped you in your tracks and made you think “what in the fuck am I drinking? Where did this wine go so wrong?” I have, a few times and I want to tell you about them here.
A few years back during the heady days of my wine infancy, I bought a few bottles from Amazon for Christmas. A regrettable decision I know, but to be fair to Amazon I did discover a couple of crackers that I would have again (I’m looking at you Jim Barry McRae Shiraz). Of the ones that I bought, there was one that really stood out. I was sucked in by its golden-beige, simplistic label (my Achilles Heel), I could tell that it was a hefty bottle that looked expensive, and for around £25-£30 it certainly wasn’t cheap. It was a grape variety I thoroughly enjoyed, and it was even from an area I still have a soft spot for. It was a bottle of Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2012 from Stellenbosch. I bought it instantly and couldn’t wait to receive it, but little did I know what awaited me inside that bottle. Little did I know how besmirched I was going to feel once this wine had been decanted, poured and drunk!
The bottle looked amazing on the rack, and I was really pleased with myself because I’d made a good hobby out of drinking my dads’ wine over the years and was happy to pay him back with a few cheeky ones of my own for once. We’d been invited to a dinner party where the host enjoyed his wine as much as we did so we all decided to bring a bottle of our own. The host was a sucker for Shiraz, and I thought it was time he branched out a little as he was too entrenched in McLaren Vale, so I took the Kevin Arnold. Why wouldn’t I?!
So, we went about enjoying ourselves and shared the three wines that we would be drinking. The Kevin Arnold got some compliments for the way it looked, and we were all genuinely looking forward to opening it. We had a McLaren Vale shiraz to start which was to be expected and then the time came. I puffed my chest out and boldly claimed to the group that it was time to open the Kevin Arnold like I was some kind of alcoholic town crier. The bottle came open okay and as was custom amongst us idiots we had a sniff of the cork and inside the bottle. It wasn’t exactly mind blowing but then I’d felt the same with other wines that had turned out to be blockbusters so no bother.
Then we poured the glasses and the excitement reached fever pitch for me…I couldn’t wait to stick my big nose in there and get a good whiff of Stellenbosch perfection. I gave the glass a little whirl and stuck my nose in and was greeted with….shit. Not actual shit obviously but it wasn’t far off. I grimaced slightly and stuck my nose in again and got the same smell. It smelled like a farmyard. Earthy with wet stone and leaves. I glanced back at the group to gauge their reaction and it was the same as me…their faces were worth a thousand words, the word “shit” repeated 1000 times. So, I took a sip and it was that same farmyard taste with wet leaf notes. There was no black fruit, no smoked spice, it wasn’t bold, it wasn’t powerful, it wasn’t anything like what a shiraz or any wine from Stellenbosch should be.
What the fuck was I drinking? Who the fuck would make a wine like this and why the fuck had I bought it? What the fuck have you done to me Kevin? My dad was unequivocal in his appraisal “What have you bought here son”?! whilst the host was much more sympathetic and said he thought it tasted okay (I joke, unfairly, that he knows nothing about wine). We struggled through it and, somehow, we finished the bottle, but it was bad. In fact, it was worse than bad, it was bloody awful. It didn’t improve at all and I was bitterly disappointed. Disappointed that I’d spent somewhere in the region of £25 for the bottle, disappointed that it tasted so bloody awful and especially disappointed that I’d geared myself up to taste what I hoped was a blockbuster. This shiraz was supposed to show to my peers that I finally knew a thing or two about wine. That I could hang with the premium drinkers and that I could spot quality when I saw it. Instead it made me look like a twat.
To this day it grates me and the only positive thing that I can say about it was that it was the best French wine I’d ever tasted from South Africa. So, what was the problem? Why had I been left totally let down by what was supposed to be a cracker? We thought it may have been spoiled and, given that assumption, we probably shouldn’t have finished the bottle. Having thought about it endlessly ever since, I’m now convinced it had been spoiled and, after having done some research for this piece, I think I may have even found the actual problem with the bottle.
Brettanomyces, or Brett for short, is a form of yeast that can be found in many fermenting wines and, if managed properly, can add complexity to a wine. However, if it goes unchecked then it can overpower all the other flavours in a wine and leave the wine smelling and tasting like a farmyard. For some, it’s a characteristic that is sought after like in Bordeaux or even in some wines in Napa Valley and even a characteristic that I enjoy. For other wineries, it’s an absolute no-no and they will go to extraordinary lengths to ensure that barrels, walls and floors are as clean as a whistle to ensure that this characteristic doesn’t appear in their wines. I think that for this vintage, Waterford Estate had a complete civilisation of the little bastards growing in their barrels and that has led to my humiliation amongst my peers. I’ve had a good look on Vivino and despite a few bad reviews nobody mentions anything near my experience so I think it will have been a one off.
Waterford Estate in Stellenbosch is in the Blauuwklippen Valley. The estate proudly proclaims that it has planted vines in only half of its territory so that it blends in well with the natural fauna found in the region. It’s currently owned by the Ord Family and Kevin Arnold is their Cellar Master and Managing Partner, having been in his role since 1998. They produce an extensive array of wines which include:
The Shiraz is a personal favourite of Kevin Arnold and he is clearly very proud of it. Each vintage is named after one of the Children from the Ord or Arnold families and the 2012 was named after poor old Ashleigh Anne. Tasting notes for the 2015 vintage include “red and dark fruit, earthy and cold stone lead the aromatics accompanied by plum fruit and leather spice undertones”. The bottles are quality and the label for the shiraz means the bottle would look outstanding on any wine rack. It gets rave reviews on Vivino with a current average rating of 4.1 which is very good.
Their website is tastefully done, offering you notes on their full range of wines along with the option to purchase directly from them. You can also read about the estate, buy gifts, book wine tours and even put your name down for some unique experiences. In fact, if I ever go to South Africa then this really looks like a place I’d like to visit.
Given that it’s clear that they put a lot into their wines, does the Kevin Arnold Shiraz 2012 deserve its place in Wine Hell? Yes. It does because it tasted bloody awful and it made me look like a twat.
Does it deserve a chance to redeem itself? Absolutely, because it looks like a quality wine and it’s a wine that I really, REALLY want to like.
Will I be trying it anytime soon? This is the most difficult question to answer as there’s a world of wine to discover out there, but do you know what Kevin? I’m going to do it. Before 2020 is out, I am going to give you a second chance. I’m going to give you the opportunity to apologise to me by trying your Shiraz one more time and if it’s any good I might even go all out and buy 6 direct from your website too. If it bowls me over then sod it, I’ll even buy a bottle of “The Jem” and you’ll be rescued from Wine Hell. I may even wholeheartedly sing your praises from my leaking rooftop.
But for now, at least, you’re going to have to languish here, along with a load of other shit shiraz’s, in a place you probably don’t belong. See you soon Kevin…