This has been a troubling year for kangaroos. Casella Wines, maker of popular Yellow Tail brand, distinguished by its cute marsupial logo, is struggling. As The Wall Street Journal reported recently, Australia's largest family-owned winery entered emergency talks with a lender after posting a loss of $30-million Australian ($31-million Canadian) for its latest fiscal year, its first red ink in more than two decades.
I can hear certain people rejoicing. Yellow Tail, an export phenomenon since its release a dozen years ago, quickly conquered our shores with its smooth, quaffable profile and below-the-radar sweetness. Meanwhile, high-minded connoisseurs mocked the $12 brand as trivial "pop" wine, the oenological equivalent of American Idol. The Australian category suffered in its shadow, too, as a growing number of consumers came to equate Down Under with down-market.
Paradoxically, Yellow Tail continues to do well in the United States, Canada and beyond. Casella's nightmare is not soft sales but a robust Australian dollar, which has risen sharply against other currencies, notably the U.S. greenback and the Canadian dollar; the United States accounts for three-quarters of the company's sales. For every bottle sold in North America, Casella must turn that transaction into Australian money to cover production costs. Bottom line: fewer Aussie dollars in Casella's marsupial pouch.
Will the currency-exchange crisis turn this kangaroo into roadkill? I doubt it. If a loan doesn't buffer the company till better times, there's always the price-hike option. In the meantime, consumers here can either stockpile Yellow Tail Shiraz or learn to love more distinguished Australian offerings, such as those below.
Heartland Shiraz 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
Young winemaking star Ben Glaetzer has collected a wagonload of laurels, including high praise from influential U.S. critic Robert Parker. He's based at his family estate in Barossa but also makes the Heartland wines in the Langhorne Creek and the Limestone Coast regions. Here's a red with sweet plum jam and blackberry well balanced by acidity and spice. It is splendid for steak.
Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $19.95
A ship called the Ringbolt sunk off the southwest coast of Australia in the late 19th century in what is now called Ringbolt Bay. It carried barrels of cement, thank goodness, nothing as enticing as this wine. The region's cool climate keeps the wine's fruit in check, allowing this cab's savoury essence to come through. Cedar, tobacco and black olive all enter the mix. It's like eating tapenade and smoking a cigar on a freshly built dock – jutting out into Ringbolt Bay. Try it with steak.
Mount Langi Ghiran Kneebones Vineyard Shiraz 2007 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
This was made in the Grampians region, by Australian standards a cool zone, which may explain the lively acidity. Expect attractive wine-gum fruit along with vanilla, spice cake and fine, dry tannins. It would be nice with fatty braised red meats, such as short ribs.
Chain of Ponds The Ledge Shiraz 2008 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
There used to be a collection of ponds in the Adelaide Hills between Barossa to the north and McLaren Vale to the south. But the seemingly unconnected water sources disappeared with the establishment of a reservoir during the First World War. Wine is now the prized liquid that distinguishes the region. This full-bodied red explodes with cassis, plum jam and vanilla, starting sweet but finding dry ground toward the finish as acidity, herbs and a woodsy nuance rise up. Perfect for hearty red meats and suitable for up to 10 years in the cellar.
Cooralook Chardonnay 2009 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $16.95
Remarkably lean for an Aussie chardonnay, this medium-bodied white was mainly matured in stainless steel (just 25 per cent in oak) and delivers a soft texture and notes of apple, stone fruit and mineral. Great for roast poultry and medium-weight fish dishes.
Tournon Shay's Flat Vineyard Pyrenees Shiraz 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Michel Chapoutier, the prominent producer in France's northern Rhône Valley, took a bold step in 2009 by investing in the land down under. (Many French winemakers consider South Australia's sunny climate and exuberantly fruity wines a scourge on the marketplace.) As if by magic, this Chapoutier-owned estate managed to coax out a more austere quality from the shiraz grape (a.k.a. syrah) of Chapoutier's homeland. There's an uncanny essence of jus de boeuf here, which would please a Rhône lover, as well as a kick of white pepper. I'd bestow a 95-point score on this offbeat Australian, as did critic Robert Parker, if it weren't so ripe and knocking at the door of Sun-Maid raisins. Pair it with rich red-meat stews or sweet pork ribs.
D'Arenberg The Olive Grove Chardonnay 2011 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $18.95
A combination of new and old barrels kept the oak attractively in check, with just a nuance of vanilla to complement the tropical fruit. Lime-like acidity keeps things fresh. Try it with medium-weight fish or eggplant Parmesan.
Mollydooker The Maître D' Cabernet Sauvignon 2010 (Australia)
SCORE: 88 PRICE: $29.95
A diplomatic reader recently asked if I'd gone too far by suggesting a wine tasted a little like bacon fat. So, I chuckled when I came across vaunted master of wine Lisa Perrotti-Brown's description of this wine as having "a touch of hung meat." Maybe wine critics are just butchers with keyboards. I missed the meat in this one, but I did glean a whiff of cigar tobacco and underbrush below its creamy caramel-mocha core. Pair it with duck breast or roast lamb.