Back in the early 1980s, the Australian producer Wolf Blass invented a sparkling red called René Pogel. Wolfie, as he’s known to friends, is a brash, but extremely successful bloke, who combines his talents as a winemaker with a flair for self-publicity. When the wine was released, people assumed Blass had been inspired by a legendary figure from the Champagne region. Who was the eponymous René, people asked? “Read ze name backwards,” Blass replied in his heavily-accented English.
The wine caused offence — not always easy to do in Australia — and was withdrawn soon afterwards, but I rather like the joke in all its boorish crassness. Wine can be such a pompous subject that anyone who tries to bring a little humour to the dining table should be cherished, not criticised.
Novelty wines, for want of a better term, tend to fall into five categories: puns, self-deprecation, sexual innuendo, fantasy names and so-called “critter brands”. To be honest, the last of these has become all too passé. The success of Yellowtail (a type of rock wallaby, apparently) has spawned an ark’s worth of animal labels: bulls, penguins, mice, moose, elephants, cats, dogs, stags, frogs and porcupines.
Peter F May’s book “Marilyn Merlot and the Naked Grape” contains descriptions of more than a hundred “odd wines”. René Pogel isn’t featured, alas, but Arrogant Frog, Cat’s Pee on a Gooseberry Bush, Chile-con-Cabernet, Le Cigare Volant, Le Fiat Door, Cleavage Creek, Fat Bastard, The Full Montepulciano, Goats do Roam, Scraping the Barrel and Truck Stop White are. Four personal favourites that didn’t make the book are Pinot Evil, Vampire Merlot, Chat en Oeuf and Bored Doe.
Such labels may not leave you clutching your sides with laughter, but they’re a lot more fun than something called Eitelsbacher Karthauserhofberg Riesling Kabinett. As May puts it: “These wines cheer us when we see them on the shelf, and they should please us when we pour them. Just because it has an amusing name doesn’t mean the winemakers weren’t deadly serious about making an excellent wine.”
I agree with the first half of that statement, but am less convinced by the second. Too often with novelty wines, the joke, pun or colourful label is more important than the quality of the liquid in the bottle. You can’t really complain if the wine is called Scraping the Barrel, but otherwise you should expect something that’s palatable at worst. On my 40th birthday, I was forced to drink something called Old Fart. The memory, like the unpleasant taste, still lingers.
Some wineries are famous for their amusing labels as well as their wines. Three of the best are Bonny Doon in California, d’Arenberg in Australia and Fairview in South Africa. Between them, they have given us Le Cigare Volant, Old Telegram, Cardinal Zin, Goats do Roam, Goat Roti, The Hermit Crab and the Dead Arm.
Not everyone sees the funny side of such wines, mind you. The generic body for the Côtes du Rhône region threatened to take Fairview to court over Goats do Roam. The response? Owner Charles Back protested outside the French embassy in Cape Town with a herd of his own goats, gaining massive publicity for his brand. Wolf Blass isn’t the only man who knows how to sell wine.
2008 Goats do Roam Red, Paarl (£5.75, 14%, www.slurp.co.uk, 0844 544 5464)
A juicy, syrah-based Cape red from cheese and wine producer, Charles Back, showing blackberry and raspberry fruit flavours and a hint of spice.
2008 Fat Bastard Chardonnay, Vin de Pays d’Oc (£7.99, 12.5%, Cranbrook Wines, 0208 507 8447)
The Bastard is a reference to the Burgundian grand cru, Bâtard-Montrachet. A hugely drinkable, deftly-oaked chardonnay with notes of apricot and citrus fruit.
2008 Cooper’s Creek Cat’s Pee on a Goosberry Bush, East Coast (£7.59, 12.5%, Booths)
The catty notes of New Zealand sauvignon are fattened out by flavours of lime and tropical fruit here. Crisp and tangy with good acidity.
2006 Arrogant Frog Organic Ribet Red, Vin de Pays d’Oc (£8.29, 13.5%, Tesco)
A structured, cassis-scented, organic red from the wonderful Jean-Claude Mas, who makes some of the best value wines in southern France.
2008 d’Arenberg The Hermit Crab, McLaren Vale (£9.49, Waitrose; £11.99, or £9.59 by the case, 13.5%, Oddbins)
Chester Osborn’s Rhône-style white brilliantly combines viognier with 28% marsanne. Peach, honeysuckle and toasty vanilla oak are stylishly integrated in the glass.
2005 Le Cigare Volant, California (£23.99, 13.5%, www.agwines.com, 0207 266 4777)
Randall Grahm’s iconic, grenache-based Rhône Ranger blend is savoury and elegant with fine-grained tannins and a core of sweet red fruits.
Originally published in The Times