Who Needs Critter Labels?

A little irreverence can do better
Feb 19, 2010

While unimaginative Australian marketing folks keep slapping cute animals on the labels of the wines they hope to mass market, a few clever souls are looking elsewhere for inspiration.

Yellow Tail started the fascination with the so-called “critter labels” when its stylized drawing of a wallaby on the label hopped to the top and became the best-selling wine in America. After that, the stampede charged. At first, it was just other marsupials like kangaroos and koalas. Then came birds (penguins, cockatoos) and reptiles (geckos). Some of these wines were actually pretty good, but with a hoard out there, the category has become the subject of derision among insiders.

Febrile minds, however, conceived some more, non-traditional ideas. Among my favorites are the ones from Some Young Punks, which I've blogged about before. But no one has stretched the boundaries more than R Wines. The collaboration of U.S. importer Grateful Palate and Aussie winemaker Chris Ringland has a whole raft of mind-bending labels. Several of them ended up in my tastings this week, and as the bags came off, I was chuckling.

These are not cheap wines. Most of the critter labels are designed to sell for single digits, but these are in the teens and low 20s. At those prices, they should deliver very good quality, and most of them do. What impressed me is that they have distinctive character. They are immediately drinkable and fall into the less-aggressive style that is becoming more prevalent among Aussie wines. For wines intended for a mass market, they can even stray into the quirky range.

For example, Bitch, a pure Grenache, has been around since the 2004 vintage. With its pink label and script typeface, it’s clearly aimed at young women. Most Aussie Grenache is darker and denser than Bitch’s current vintage, 2008, which is very light in color and shows a smoky edge to the pomegranate and plum flavors. At $10, it qualifies as a decent deal.

For more testerone, there’s Luchador, inspired by the the masked, Mexican professional wrestlers. One of the masks glares out from the label of the 2007 vintage, sending a message that the $15 wine inside should be burly. But it’s not so tough. I found it polished and generous with classic black cherry, licorice and a bit of dried tomato flavors making it distinctive. Only a mild grip of tannin on the finish puts up a fight.

Having been on a few Qantas flights in Australia, I got a smile out of Boarding Pass, an $18 Shiraz from the 2007 vintage. The obligatory legal information is rendered on a label that looks exactly like a Qantas boarding pass. The blackberry and licorice flavors balance against higher-than-usual acidity and a burr of tannins. The reserve wine in this label is called First Class and goes for $30.

Another Aussie wine label that makes me smile is the sultry silhouette on Fetish Wines’ Playmates, a Shiraz from Barossa Valley made by Rolf Binder. Even before I removed the bag from the 2008 vintage ($22) to reveal the label, I wrote that it was “supple, generous and appealing,” and that it lingered “seductively” on finish. Now that’s truth in labeling.

Labels Australia

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