"Who knew?" I muttered to Mrs. G., as she surveyed the carnage in our dining room. Table and countertops were littered with dozens of brightly colored wine bottles, all sporting pictures of critters. It looked like some bizarre ad campaign for the zoo.
"Here I've been wasting my time worrying about grapes and clones, spring frosts and harvest rains," I moaned. "I've spent countless hours stewing about terroir and malolactic fermentation," I continued my rant. "And now I find that what really sells wine, what truly appeals to the popular palate, is kangaroos!"
Mrs. G. tapped her imperious little foot, and shot me The Look. "Cheap and cheerful," she said. "Huh?" "Cheap and cheerful," she repeated. "It's an old advertising phrase; it refers to a particular kind of colorful, low-end, put-a-smile-on-your-face product."
The more I think about it, the more that simple phrase seems to accurately sum up the appeal of these critter wines, which share several key traits. They are all Australian, all decked out in primary colors (labels, capsules and sometimes even the corks). They all sport pictures of some kind of animal, and every single critter seems to have a mighty cheerful story, or at least a slogan. Oh, and about that cheap part: The magic price seems to be $7 a bottle, give or take a buck.
The poster child for the critter wine phenomenon is Yellow Tail, the No. 1 imported wine in the U.S. Introduced just three years ago, production has quickly climbed to 5 million cases of wine annually.
The Yellow Tail lineup, which features a colorful kangaroo on the label, does quite well in Seattle, and shows no sign of peaking. Sales are up five-fold during the first half of this year, making it far and away the best-selling Australian brand in the market.
Is it any wonder that everybody and his horse has jumped on the critter bandwagon? Indeed, the success of Yellow Tail has spawned a Noah's Ark full of imitators. Almost every distributor in town has its own equivalent brand, some enjoying a fair amount of success.
A quick scan of your supermarket wine shelves will demonstrate the point. Wines named for mountains, creeks, plants, hills and valleys are out; wines with animals are in. Kangaroos (and jackaroos and amaroos) are especially popular, but you'll also find crocodiles, cockatoos, swans and penguins; mad fish and koala bears.
Most are cheap, and all are cheerful. But are they any good? In fact, many of these wines deliver some combination of flavors that have a lot of consumer appeal. You will often find ripe fruit that has not been fermented completely dry, so that there is some residual sweetness. Frequently this is coupled with plenty of vanilla, most likely from oak chips, rather than barrels, which are very expensive.
Though they all may look alike, they do not all taste alike, and within each particular brand (most offer four or five different wines) there are usually one or two standouts. Six or seven bucks is cheap for wine, but it's still six or seven bucks. You want to get more than what you paid for, not less.
As a general rule, the same strengths that you will find in more expensive Australian wines are in play here. Critter chardonnays are generally quite nice — broad, fruity, soft and quaffable; just be sure to give them a good chill.
Among the critter reds, shiraz is usually best, or a shiraz-something blend. Cabs, cab blends and merlot are less substantial, but there are occasional successes.
Here's a quick, brand-by-brand review.
Yellow Tail ($7) : Great package, six flavors to choose from (Cab-Merlot will be introduced in September), and, should you ask, they have a 4-foot-tall, inflatable kangaroo to liven up your display. One bonus that all their success brings is that Yellow Tails are a vintage ahead of most other brands, so the wines are impeccably fresh. The 2004 Chardonnay is plump and creamy, while the 2003 Shiraz is the top red, showing tangy fruit and spice. All the red wines have a strong vanilla flavor streak.
Alice White ($7): Alice has it all — a spiffy kangaroo, the requisite bright packaging (colored corks too!) and an ongoing online saga. The star of the six-wine lineup is the 2003 Cabernet-Shiraz, which shows real definition, with bright, tart, spicy fruit and some tannic backbone. The other reds have a lot of that vanilla flavor, which some like, but which I find detrimental to the fruit.
B lack Swan ($9 ): This has something to do with Dutch mariner Antounie Caen, who apparently sighted black swans on Shark Bay in 1636. And voila — wine! In this group, the best is the 2003 Chardonnay & Semillon blend, a classy bottle that shows crisp, mixed stone fruits and hints of honey and lemon. The reds are simple and fruity.
The Little Penguin ($7): This is the newest entry into the Noah sweepstakes. Turns out there are penguins in Australia, too, and guess what? They're small, and they "often gather to forage for delicacies." Just like consumers! The 2003 Shiraz is the best of this group, which is solidly in the Yellow Tail-style camp (sweet fruit + vanilla).
Crocodile Rock ($6): A snazzy label (where's Elton John when you need him?) and pricing a buck below the competition makes this a brand worth searching for. But watch out for vintages getting a little long in the tooth — very crocodile-like. The 2002 Merlot is a pleasant surprise, with sweet, ripe fruit, and a lot of juicy appeal.
Fat Croc ($8) : Fat Croc boasts that it "won't cost you an arm and a leg" though it's a buck more than the mainstream. The 2002 Chardonnay delivers the promised big, fat flavors. It's delicious, bracing, juicy and mercifully un-oaked. There's a very nice 2002 Shiraz also. All good, except for the obstinate black corks, that look as though they're made out of recycled tires. How are you supposed to get them back in the bottle once you have wrestled them out?
Also tasted: Amaroo ($8), best is the 2002 Chardonnay; Jackaroo ($7), choose the nice, soft 2001 Shiraz; Kangaroo Ridge ($7), the plump, spicy 2002 Shiraz is the standout; Bear Crossing ($7), I like the ripe, honeyed 2002 Semillon-Chardonnay (and you get a free koala bear sticker); Outback Chase ($7), features a fine, plummy 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon; Cockatoo Ridge.
At a higher price point, I really liked the 2002 Mad Fish Chardonnay ($17), with pungent scents of pineapple and racy, bright citrus fruit flavors. For a red wine, choose The Black Chook 2003 Shiraz (confusingly labeled Shiraz Viognier). For $15 this wine really hits the bulls-eye, with dark, spicy, sappy, puckery red fruits and loads of black pepper in the finish.
Lest you fear that Australia is quickly running out of animals, a quick head count shows that some potential superstars are still available. Wallabies, dingoes, fruit bats, platypuses and plenty of birds and reptiles remain unclaimed. A glass of The Little Wombat, anyone?
Paul Gregutt is the author of "Northwest Wines." His column appears weekly in the Wine section. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.