Casella Wines [yellow tail] The Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2007

Why the hell not?

Very clean on the nose, and very correct too. This is textbook Cabernet, with some dusty leaf, some dark fruit and cedar oak. It’s also textbook in the sense that it feels a bit detached and clinical — if beauty relies on flaws, this wine’s aroma never quite approaches a sense of the beautiful because it’s just so correct. Not to linger too much on this point; there’s something to be said for a wine without distractions.

Bannockburn Shiraz 1998

This wine’s legend precedes it. For those not aware, the back label summarises its story: after hail destroyed Bannockburn’s 1998 estate Shiraz crop, a whole range of other wineries sent in their Shiraz grapes for inclusion in this wine. Hence the South Eastern Australia appelation. A real one-off cuvée and the sort of vinous curiosity that’s arguably more interesting to think about than taste.

The nose shows a flamboyant aroma profile of equal parts soil and aged leather, with some stale spice thrown in. To be honest, it comes across as a little funky and not especially clean, but to my taste these aren’t issues per se. Whatever your tolerance for wilder aromas, there’s no arguing this wine makes an immediate statement.

Good weight on entry, with slightly DMS-like blackcurrant fruit and good presence overall. Some stalky overtones establish the character and style of the wine. It seems full bodied at this stage. The mid-palate feels lush and resolved, but just as one relaxes into things, the after palate introduces quite drying tannins. These attenuate the wine’s nascent expansiveness and pinch its sense of scale. So its line is akin to a wedge, narrowing as it approaches the finish, and hollowing out somewhat in terms of fruit weight too. The finish feels a little “inside out,” as it’s dry with a notable absence of fruit weight.

Not an especially elegant wine, and perhaps past its best. I’m glad I tasted it, though. Wines like these add a welcome note of quirkiness to the local wine scene.

Price: $NA
Closure: Cork
Date tasted: September 2008

Somerton Shiraz Cabernet Merlot 2006

Surely, at $4.25, I’m tempting fate. The bargain dozen has gone quite well so far, with some unexpectedly unusual wines and a bit more character than I dared to hope for. Here, then, is a red blend from that vaguest of “regions”, South Eastern Australia. Having barely escaped a critter wine encounter with my sense of wine still intact, I’m interested, if a little apprehensive, regarding this equally inexpensive label.

A hint of black pepper and spice on the nose, backed up by smooth, rather flat berry fruit and a bit of toasty oak. Bland to be sure, but it smells more or less vinous. The palate reveals the extent to which this wine emphasises round, easy fruit. Relatively sweet, slightly confected berry fruit hits the tongue early and travels easily down the line. Some vanilla jumps on board as the wine chugs steadily towards the finish, and it all sort of disappears before you’ve had an opportunity to think about how you really feel. There’s not much in the way of structure, but neither are there off flavours or anything that makes you stop and think. In other words, it drinks like a good soft drink.
We’ve definitely jumped into “extreme value” territory with this wine, and style has shifted gears accordingly. At $10, it’s possible to get some sense of individuality. At $5 or under, I’ve yet to see it.

Casella Wines [yellow tail] Cabernet Merlot 2007

It’s tempting to write about this wine in terms of how important it is to Australia’s wine industry, or perhaps to express curiosity regarding what such a cheap wine actually tastes like, as if it were the vinous equivalent of a trip to the red light district (ie something that other people do). In reality, I’m a big fan of cheap wines for purely practical reasons. Firstly, I can’t afford to drink top or even middle tier wines every day. Secondly, there are few things more exciting to a wine lover than finding an excellent cheap wine. Thrift and pleasure, a top combination in my books.A hit of clean, sweet red and blue fruit on the nose. It’s easy, simple and, to me, screams of industrial winemaking. The palate is surprisingly acidic (though balanced) and this helps to pull the sweet, somewhat cloying fruit flavours back into line. There’s a lot of blueberry and a little spice on the palate. Quite flavoursome but not identifiably varietal. I can’t really detect any tannins. Its character pushes the boundaries of what I understand to be wine, and suggests a simpler beverage altogether. Having said that, it’s very well made, and I’ve no doubt it succeeds in being what it’s supposed to be. I can imagine someone who otherwise disliked wine, especially red wine, may find this surprisingly delicious, as it avoids the more challenging aspects of most other styles (savouriness, tannin, etc). It responded neutrally to food, and its sweet flavour profile didn’t seem to either enhance or detract from the roast beef meal with which it was served.For me, though, this wine holds limited interest, even as an everyday quaffer. It doesn’t communicate a sense of region or style, and instead seems intent on suppressing its individuality. Even in a very inexpensive wine, I like to taste where the grapes have come from, and hopefully to feel like the wine is communicating to me as an individual and not as a demographic. Perhaps my notion wine is overly romanticised or naive, but I do know there are cheap wines on the market that, to me, better encapsulate their origins.[yellow tail]Price: $A8Closure: StelvinDate tasted: May 2008

Lindemans Early Harvest Semillon Sauvignon Blanc

As I was handed a plastic picnic cup full of Verdelho yesterday, I reflected that not all wines are intended to demand the full attention of the drinker. A lot of wines are crafted and marketed for their lifestyle value. The new Lindemans “Early Harvest” range is a good example. From what I can tell, it’s the vinous equivalent of low carb beer, “30% less alcohol, 30% less calories” trumpeted proudly on the front label and through the back label text. Fair enough, I could stand to lose a kilo or ten, and I do enjoy lower alcohol wines for their practicality.Very pale green colour, good clarity. The nose is of adequate intensity and presents simple aromas of passionfruit, tropical florals and a bit of capsicum. Nothing challenging, but at least it smells of something pretty. On entry, two things become apparent: there’s not much acid, and the lower alcohol is presumably due, in part, to a moderate amount of residual sugar. These two factors create a rather flabby experience on the middle palate, the sugar propping up and adding body to the wine’s dilute aromatic fruit and slightly grassy flavour profile. The after palate slips away to an interesting, not entirely pleasant, chalky finish. I’m not sure the value in considering this wine in terms of absolute quality, as it will be chosen, I suspect, on the basis of its other attributes. Fair enough. Just don’t think about it too hard as you’re drinking. If this wine works well in the market, I wonder if it’s naive for me to suggest the time for quality off-dry Riesling styles could be near? I wish.LindemansPrice: $A14Closure: StelvinDate tasted: January 2008


To my shame, I’ve been drinking even more than I’ve been writing up while in New Zealand. Here are a few bits and pieces of marginal interest.Mission Estate Winery Hawkes Bay Merlot 2006I used most of this wine for cooking but swilled a glass once the casserole was underway. And whaddya know, it’s actually pretty good. Nice fruit, easygoing structure, no boiled lollies in sight. Definitely on the riper end of the spectrum for Merlot, and none the worse for that. Great quaffer. Wish all Aussies at this price point were as good. Fruit comes from various vineyards in the Hawkes Bay region, including the Gimblett Gravels.Mission Estate WineryPrice: $NZ14Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007Jacob’s Creek Shiraz 2005I don’t know what this wine is doing in here, but let’s just say that it was offered, and as we all know, it’s rude not to accept a gift.It’s actually not too bad, certainly a fault-free wine at the very least. The fruit flavour has that confected red fruit quality that screams “industrial” to me, but hey, it’s tasty and has lots of flavour. Not bad.Jacob’s CreekPrice: $NZ9Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007Matua Valley Late Harvest Muscat 2006I was having cravings the other night in Gisborne (just a few nights before the big earthquake, no less) and wandered up to the local supermarket to grab some dessert and, of course, wine to go with. I have no idea what grapes are in this wine, although the label does, at least, let the purchaser know that they are from the Gisborne wine region.There’s some nice, sweet fruit flavour here, a little “jasmine tea” in character, but harsh acidity quite overwhelms any sense of flavour. It’s not the sort of acidity that is cleansing or sprightly — it’s just harsh and unbalanced. Oh well.Matua Valley Price: $NZ12 (375ml)Closure: StelvinDate tasted: December 2007

The Big Kahuna Cabernet Sauvignon Shiraz NV

On the nose, this wine is your basic generic bistro red, with a vague fruity flavor combined with an even vaguer wood-esque kind of smell (shavings? chips? powder? an unfortunate accident in a pallet manufacturing plant?), with a definite hint of sucrosité. The color’s a fresh, young purple; it looks rich, just like “real” wine.

In the mouth, the first thing that hits you is an overwhelmingly jammy-sweet, Smucker’s Grape Jelly flavor, with a strange, off-putting note of fake something there as well; on the run-out, acids take over for a second, and it all ends on a badly jumbled, utterly fake note that’s quite a disappointment.

On the other hand, compared to other wines in this price range, it isn’t really all that bad. Sure, it’s not particularly pleasant, and it doesn’t taste at all varietal, but if it were lightly chilled and served with a nice greasy pizza, it just might work.

The Big Kahuna [but really fresh&easy]
Price: US $1.99
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

The Big Kahuna Chardonnay NV

Extremely pale, flaxen color with an obviously watery rim. Slight aromas of pear and fresh sugar cane combined with a slight dustiness on the nose. In the mouth, medium bodied with slight residual sugar and a taste reminiscent of pineapple Jell-O, but with an attractive flatness there that is a subtle compliment to the bright tropical fruit (oak chips?). Thankfully, there’s a decent level of acidity that makes the slightly sweet finish more than acceptable.

Drink this puppy with spicy Asian noodle dishes or maybe even mole poblano – the sweetness and acidity should stand up just fine to any culinary onslaught you can think of.

The Big Kahuna (but really fresh&easy)
Price: US $1.98
Closure: Stelvin
Date tasted: November 2007

Tesco, the UK’s largest retailer, entered the US market last week with the opening of their fresh&easy stores in southern California. The Big Kahuna is their low end entry-level wine brand, produced in Australia. It competes with Trader Joe’s Charles Shaw line, better known as Two Buck Chuck. The differences? The Big Kahuna is packaged in attractive bottles with well-printed labels and high quality screwcaps (as opposed to shabby, trailer park-appropriate bottles with low quality corks). Plus, what’s in the bottle could easily pass for [yellow tail] at a third the price. It’s well considered, decent quality wine that isn’t at all disappointing considering the price.

Most importantly, this wine strikes me as being right on target when it comes to American consumers’ taste preferences. It’s attractively packaged, keenly priced, and has enough residual sugar to keep its audience’s interest. My only complaint would be that it’s not an American wine – surely Tesco could source this sort of thing locally instead of hauling it up here from the Southern Hemisphere?