Shiraz shakes off critter cuteness 

It can’t all be blamed on “critter” labels, but that’s a good place to start.

Australian winemakers lead the world in the shameless appropriation of cute animal images on wine labels, and, for a time, Yellow Tail’s kangaroo seemed poised to take over the wine world. Wine snobs went into indignant orbit, but the buying public obligingly sucked down boatloads of flabby chardonnay and feckless shiraz — conveniently forgetting that it was a powerhouse shiraz (the Aussie equivalent of the Rhône’s syrah), Penfolds Grange, that had put the country on the world wine map in the first place.

The critter phenomenon continues unabated, and there’s even a website, critterwines.com, that can help the consumer choose a wine based on a preference for anything from aardvarks to zebras. But a number of factors seem to be contributing to a kind of renaissance in the Australian wine industry, until recently victim of its own quantity-based success. Several seasons of drought may have had an impact. Also, replanted shiraz vines — many of which were ripped out in the ’80s to make way for presumably more popular grapes — are coming to maturity. And then, there may have been a change of heart on the part of winemakers — at least that’s what Omniboire, always a fan of the underdog (though not necessarily on a label), was hoping. Fair dinkum, mate.

Kirby’s Prime Steakhouse seemed a perfect place to put big-boned Aussie shiraz to the test, though sommelier and host Sam Miller admitted that most of his patrons prefer California cabs. We were joined by Lee Folkes, a wine rep for Southern Starz, an importing/distributing company specializing in wines of Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and Chris Dunn, former Nashville songwriter now turning his talents to food and wine for several local publications. As usual, all wines (some of which were supplied by Folkes) were tasted blind. “These wines show a lot of structure,” commented Folkes at tasting’s end, sounding almost as surprised as the rest of us.

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2007 R Wines “Luchador” Shiraz South Australia, $15

The only wine approaching critter cuteness on its label actually ended up numero uno. The 2007 Luchador Shiraz South Australia from R Wines features a masked Mexican lucha libre performer and can’t help but prompt back-label comments such as “a wine that will body slam your tongue.” Those Aussies. There was a wide range of opinions, with Folkes finding it tired, sluggish and tasting of “canned veggies,” while Miller called it “dark and powerful” with great balance. Dunn sensed black currents and the beginnings of an appealing softness, suggesting that even wrestlers have their sensitive side.

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2005 Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard Syrah Red Mountain, $50

Wine two had two advantages: Bottle age and elevated price, its retail being more than twice that of the next highest sticker. It was also the one ringer in the tasting, coming as it does from an up-and-coming syrah region in Washington State. Omniboire agreed with Folkes in finding blackberry, blueberry and some tar in the 2005 Doyenne Grand Ciel Vineyard Red Mountain Syrah. Miller suggested, correctly, that the wine lacked “young fruit” but got pepper and herbs on the finish. Dunn’s “well-balanced” observation proved even truer on re-tasting a couple days later when the wine had mellowed into a menthol/mocha lushness.

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2008 Jim Barry “The Lodge Hill” Shiraz Clare Valley, $21

Following closely statistically, wine three comes from a Clare Valley shiraz icon. With its elegant, minimalist label the extreme opposite of march-of-the-penguins imagery, the 2008 Jim Barry “The Lodge Hill” Shiraz impressed Miller with “stewed tomato and bell pepper — in a positive way.” Folkes found anise and mint, proclaiming, “I would buy this bottle” — and no, it wasn’t one of his. Dunn detected vanilla, toasty notes and “a little cedar.”

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2008 Tait “The Ballbuster” Barossa Valley, $19

Two shiraz blends tied for number four. Tait’s 2008 “The Ballbuster” Barossa Valley, endearingly named for the winemaker’s wife, is 77 percent shiraz, with the remainder merlot and cab. It weighs in at a whopping 16 percent alcohol, though that’s not the primary impression. “Burly, brawny nose ... pepper, soy, blackberry,” said Folkes. “Rhubarb, bourbon, cotton candy … bold but short-lived,” claimed Miller. “Malolactic creaminess … barnyard notes and briary fruit,” offered Dunn.

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2006 Waterwheel “Memsie” Bendigo, $15

The older 2006 Waterwheel “Memsie” Bendigo Victoria has been rated 90 points by two of wine’s big-name critics. We weren’t quite so effusive, finding the shiraz/cab/malbec blend closed in the nose to start (it opened up later) but nicely balanced with cocoa and vanilla (Folkes), coffee, pepper and black cherry (Omniboire), big body, nice balance (Dunn), and gingerbread with a “strangely floral” nose (Miller).

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2009 Nugan Estate “Vision” Shiraz Riverina, $12

The youngest wine in the tasting was the 2009 Nugan Estate “Vision” Riverina Shiraz. “Tar, blueberry, apricot, flowers,” enthused Folkes; “Slightly balsamic,” countered Dunn. “Cherry pie and cinnamon on nose … tastes young and green,” said Miller, neatly nailing the age aspect.

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2008 Bleasdale “Langhorn Crossing” Langhorn Creek, $12

Wine number six is a blend in which cabernet dominates at 53 percent, perhaps accounting for Miller’s “rich depth of fruit and herbs on the nose.” The 2008 Bleasdale “Langhorn Crossing” Langhorn Creek impressed Omniboire with a “great silkiness and elegance featuring black cherry and cassis.” Dunn also got cherry, and thought the wine could open up more. Folkes, whose wine it was, simply found “tired fruit.” Oops.

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2008 Chris Ringland Shiraz Barossa Valley, $19

With the 2008 Chris Ringland Barossa Valley Shiraz, one almost yearns for a simple creature in place of the elaborately over-designed label. If the wine itself were to lead us in that direction, let’s see … “dark berry and brown sugar” … “dark purple, good tannins” … “licorice, plum jam, blackberry” … “deep plum with cedar and caramel.” We suggest a bear, maybe a cute adolescent one implying the need for a little age.

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2006 Thorn-Clark “Shotfire” Shiraz Barossa Valley, $26

Not counting Nine Stones Hilltop, a moderately priced and generally quite dependable wine that bombed totally, the last wine in the lineup is another that usually performs at a much higher level, the 2008 Thorn-Clark “Shotfire Barossa” Valley Shiraz. “Wet earth and forest,” said Miller. “Green and herbal,” thought Omniboire. “Lacking fruit, tight and chewy,” sniffed Dunn. Yet Folkes found “a pretty nose with floral, sage and lavender … and spicy cola” on the palate. Which is why there’s a four-person panel.

Dunn summed it up for the tasting as a whole, however: “I will have to reevaluate the good folks from Down Under.” Fair dinkum, once again. •


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