Sometimes it seems that the wine business is as much about marketing as it is about grapes and soil, and this is certainly true at the mass-market level, where the buyer's choice in purchase decisions may be as much about the label as it is about the wine.
The stunning success of Australia's Yellow Tail with its trademark kangaroo, a brand that leapt from obscurity to become the top-selling imported wine in the U.S., prompted competitors to come up with their own animal-related motifs - Penfolds' Little Penguin and Gallo's Black Swan - to label similar brands. The ensuing commercial battle appears more likely to be contested with eye-catching logos than objective differences in the wines, much less critical reviews.
Many vinous animal logos feature cute little fellows, like Don Sebastiani's zany Smoking Loon, Napa's amphibious Frog's Leap or the beautiful flying duck art that adorns the wines from Oregon's Duck Pond.
But a handful of producers turn to larger, bolder animals to create a potent image for their low-end wines. In today's tasting report, we sample a pair of modest (well under $10) Old World reds that draw on the brave bull for their label mythology. The first hails from Hungary (red-and-black label image above), where the "Bull's Blood of Eger" has been a familiar, if rather macho, moniker for the hearty red country wine of Northern Hungary's Eger region since the 1700s. Today's other wine is from Spain, where the Osborne family has made its black bull image into a familiar commercial landmark through hundreds of large, black bull-shaped billboards that pop up along Spanish highways from Gibraltar to the Pyrenees.
Egri Bikaver, like many wines of the old Eastern Bloc nations, lost much of its reputation during the Cold War, when Communist cooperatives cranked up production to churn out cheap, marginal wines for export. With Hungary's return to free-market status in 1989, though, private producers are working to restore the old traditions. This rendition from Egervin, an old cooperative now privatized, is persuasive: It's dry, spicy, fruity and acidic, a good food wine with a character that, if forced to compare, I might liken to a gutsy Chianti. The varieties aren't disclosed, but Egri Bikaver is usually made from a blend of the Hungarian Kekfrankos and Kadarka grapes with smaller amounts of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.
Osborn "Solaz," a characteristic Spanish blend of Tempranillo (80 percent) and Cabernet Sauvignon (20 percent) that sees plenty of oak, is made in Castilla, in central Spain in the region of Madrid, but it could certainly pass for a simple but decent Rioja in its deep, balanced mix of spicy fruit and oak. (Coincidentally, by the way, the U.S. importer, W. J. Deutsch of New York, also imports Yellow Tail.)
Both wines - animal labels to the contrary notwithstanding - are fine, serious table wines and very good values at their low-end price point. (Another familiar and affordable "bull's blood" wine, Sangre de Toro from Torres near Barcelona, wasn't tasted today.)
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Egervin 2001 Egri Bikaver ($6.99)
This dark reddish-purple wine from Hungary offers pleasant aromas of cherries, berries and spice, followed by bold flavors of mouth-filling, tart-sweet black-cherry fruit, a snap of lemony acidity, and a surprising dose of drying tannins that persist into a long finish. U.S. importer: Monsieur Henri Wine Co., New Orleans. (June 28, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: A fine match with a rustic dish of homemade Italian sausage and fresh tomato sauce over spaghetti, a hearty flavor mix that helped "tame" the wine's substantial tannins.
VALUE: Rates as one of the year's top buys at this price point.
WHEN TO DRINK: Although it's not customary to cellar cheap wines, the combination of forward fruit, good acid balance and tannins suggests that an experiment in cellaring could yield interesting results for a minimal investment. Will it evolve or simply fade over years in the cellar? Only one way to find out.
WEB LINK: Egervin's Website is available in English, German and Hungarian.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Egri Bikaver is widely distributed and should be available at local wine shops. To find it, and other Egervin exports, check Wine-Searcher.com,
Osborne 2001 "Solaz" Vino de la Tierra de Castilla ($7.69)
Dark ruby in color with a reddish-orange glint, this Spanish wine's short, crumbly cork broke in half upon removal. The wine was in good shape, though, showing deep, brooding black fruit aromas, appetizing but delicate. Swirling in the glass brought up the fruit and unveiled spicy notes of cinnamon and cloves. It's more generous on the palate, structured black fruit, oaky spice and mouth-watering acidity in good balance. U.S. importer: W.J. Deutsch & Sons Ltd., Harrison, N.Y. (June 28, 2004)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with Italian sausage and tomato sauced pasta.
VALUE: Fine value for the price I paid, but shop around, as many Web sources price it a dollar or two less.
WHEN TO DRINK: Ready to drink, but Tempranillo in general will age well and reward careful cellaring; don't hesitate to keep it for a year or two on a wine rack, longer in a good cellar.
WEB LINK: The winery Website (English, German and Dutch), requires Flash.
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: Find vendors and compare prices for Osborne Solaz at Wine-Searcher.com,
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Wednesday, June 30, 2004