|You’ll endure a wine that tastes as bad as the label looks. But when the wine is far more tasteful than the packaging? Greg Duncan-Powell asks why some of Australia’s top wines hide behind the most godawful labels.Why do mullets and moustaches attach themselves to the most appropriate heads? Why are chunky gold chains always found in hirsute habitats, and why is it that blue wine bottles find their way to the tables of girls with badly bleached hair and voices that rise at the end of sentences? These are some of life’s great mysteries. Much money and time is spent on design in an attempt to harness products to this strange magnetic force. With wine, when the bottle, label and name are done right the force is almost insurmountable. The girl who drinks her chardonnay from a frosty bottle will always be an avid watcher of crappy American sitcoms. On the other hand the person who loves subtitled films will always go for the wine in the long, high shouldered bottle with the understated label, regardless of what’s in it.
It is a sad fact and a perplexing paradox. The look of a bottle is of no importance but also the utmost. It has no bearing on the taste but is the main reason for purchasing. Visual appeal is one way a wine drinker can be tricked into buying something that is not as good as it should be. Consequently it is incumbent on an enthusiast to hone their senses of taste and smell and totally ignore their sense of style. It’s crucial, especially for the fiscally challenged. Some of Australia’s best wines and best bargains lurk under some of the most god awful labels. Boutique wine labels are like people’s houses – there’s plenty that’s quirky and gaudy but for plain ugly bargains the big companies rule.
If there was an award for the most kitsch cellar door it would go unanimously to McWilliams Hanwood at Griffith. The big barrel shaped tasting room screams ’70s in the worst way. So do the labels. The wine is a different matter. Start with Mount Pleasant Elizabeth 1996. This has long been one of Australia’s great bargains – a favourite of the cogniscente. It’s a yummy aged Hunter Valley semillon, the label has had a revamp but still has that typeface that recalls an era of Valiants and fondue. It’s partner in style is the Mount Pleasant Philip 1996 (the whole royal name thing is pretty daggy too), a bargain, bottle-aged Hunter Valley shiraz. For a bit more money you can enter very special territory. Try and get hold of a bottle of Mount Pleasant Lovedale Semillon or the Mount Pleasant 1997 OP and OH (old paddock and old hill) Shiraz. You won’t be disappointed.
From the Southcorp stable it starts with the Leo Buring Range. This was a grand old marque, Leo was one of Australia’s wine heroes, he died in 1961 and his legacy is a riesling reputation and a bizarre building in the Barossa called Chateau Leonay which has been renovated, is part of Richmond Grove now and is worth a look. But using poor Leo’s name as a brand to sell wine is much like using Perry Como or Englebert Humpadink to sell cds. That’s not the only problem. The label has gone through some pretty bad incarnations and the current one is an all time shocker. With a zig zaggy split in gaudy gold it doesn’t exactly entice you to pick it off the shelf. But the Leo Buring Leonay Eden Valley Riesling 1997 is fantastic. It’s a rich, aged riesling worthy of Leo’s name and a better label.
Lindemans is another Southcorp brand which has pasted on some classic labels, and some classic clangers. Thankfully the tasteful Hunter River bin number labels have returned and the marketing manager who changed them has gone. But there remains in the Lindemans portfolio a very ugly label hiding a bargain red- Lindemans Limestone Coast Shiraz 1999. Everything about it is inappropriate – the paper, the shape, the silly drawing – if you came up with this one you’d give the game away, surely.
Even worse is Miranda. This is the company that launched a wine called White Pointer. When you looked through the bottle, you could see a shark on the inside. But the shark was only visible when the wine was refrigerated to drinking temperature…. I’m not joking. The Miranda High Country series offer pretty good value reds. The 1998 Cabernet Sauvignon is a nice wine with (what I believe) is a drawing of a mountain range on the label which’d get you kicked out of art school.
Seppelt has almost perfected the art of disguising brilliant wines in horrible clothes. Leading the pack is Seppelt Great Western Shiraz 1996 an iconic, central Victorian shiraz with a bit of bottle age. It’s one of Australia’s greatest reds masked by one of Australia’s ugliest labels. It’s Audrey Hepburn in a spangly leisure suit.
A good label is like good art- you know it when you see it. It’s an area riddled with subjectivity, it’s true, but when they’re right they’re classic: Henschke, Wynns, Dalwhinnie and Cape Mentelle all have classic labels, but in Australia, a classic label stuck to the bottle of classic wine is a rare thing.
University tests have proven that 78.5% of the best wine lies behind an ugly label. Consequently there’s some simple advice to follow: choose ugly- drink lovely and if more has been spent on design than wine, decline.