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The tale of Yellow Tail

by Tom Cannavan, 07/2008

There's an interesting discussion to be had about just what constitutes a wine 'brand'. Some would argue that any wine not tied to the specific patch of earth where its grapes were grown, and bearing a name that is 'invented' for marketing purposes rather reflecting its producer, is a brand.

There would be little argument that Blue Nun and Blossom Hill are brands, and certainly each fulfils these criteria. Yet, there's a strong argument for saying that Château Latour is a 'brand', recognised and promoted as such, and yet others argue vehemently that 'Merlot', 'Sauvignon Blanc' or 'Chardonnay' have become powerful wine brands in their own right.

Whatever your thoughts on this subject, there is one brand - or perhaps we should call it a 'SuperBrand' - that has been nothing less than a wine phenomenon over the past six or seven years. The mother of all brands, is Yellow Tail.
   bottles

The Casella Wine Company is based in Riverina, Australia, not far from Sydney. Having been founded in the 1960's by Italian immigrant Filippo Casella, his oldest son, John, took over in 1994. John Casella had a much more ambitious strategy for the company, centred around creating a strong export brand that would be targeted specifically at the US market.

Soon, he found a partner in the form of American wine distributor W.J. Deutsch & Sons of White Plains, New York. Together in a 50/50 partnership, Yellow Tail was born.

Never before has the wine world witnessed rapid growth towards worldwide domination like Yellow Tail's. From those humble beginnings the brand now exports 25 million cases, it is the single best-selling brand in the USA, Canada and Australia, and is making powerful inroads all over Europe. In May 2008, Trade newspaper Off Licence News reported that three million bottles of Yellow Tail were sold in the UK in the previous three months - up from less than one million during the same period in 2007 - with new listings in Tesco and Somerfield joining Sainsbury's, Waitrose, Morrison's and Asda.

sweet taste of success

The rip-roaring success of Yellow Tail has transformed Casella Wines into a major world wine company. The small family winery must now be visible from space, with its 600 tanks, many of which hold a million litres of wine. And what has driven this phenomenon? Well, slick marketing and a strong 'brand identity' for sure, but the wines must be pushing the right consumer buttons in order for the success to have sustained over several years.

Many commentators have noted that the key feature of Yellow Tail is its sweetness. Some claim it is little more than the Coca Cola of the wine world - wine for people who don't like wine. Certainly it is difficult to get the analytical numbers for Yellow Tail. On their comprehensive web site you can download high resolution images of bottles, recipes for dishes to match each wine, tasting notes and the rest. But there's no technical information that I can find after many hours of searching.

the taste of the tail

And so to my first ever tasting of Yellow Tail. I sampled four wines from the range. Putting hand on heart, there is only one that I could recommend, and then probably not to the fairly dedicated wine lovers that will be reading these words.

These wines are sweet. This is not just the sweetness of very ripe fruit, but a generous dollop of residual sugar. On its own, this is not a problem. But for me, it does not sit entirely happily in most of these wines. The tannins are fairly rough and astringent, whilst the concentration and quality of fruit seems insufficient on the mid-palate and unable to marry the sweetness and tannin together. Low acidity also means the finish is slightly unbalanced.

This is being ruthlessly critical. It is also giving these wines closer scrutiny than they perhaps deserve: of course I am not the target demographic for Yellow Tail.

The truth is that I could name a hundred wines at the same price points that I think are better, and which I would prefer to drink. But the Yellow Tail phenomenon marches on, and something tells me that their failure to seduce me will do little to stand in its way.

the wines

Yellow Tail Shiraz 2007
For me, easily the best of the small range I sampled, and one I could recommend for the barbie or parties this summer. It is a moderately large wine with 13.5% alcohol (though it may well have started life with more - Australia's larger producers are increasingly lowering alcohol during winemaking using a variety of high-tech methods), that has a deep crimson colour and buoyant, bright nose of crunchy red and black berries with a little floral lift. On the palate there is noticeable sweetness here, giving a rather jammy, confected character, with plenty of blackcurrant and cherry jam flavour. Some spice and a little bit of liquoricy grip adds some tension, and there is just about enough acidity to stop this being cloying. £5.99, Asda, Morrison's, Sainsbury's, Tesco.

Yellow Tail Merlot 2007
Yellow Tail's Merlot pours a moderately deep crimson colour with spiced plum compote fruit that has an edge of kirsch-like, jammy brightness. On the palate the sweetness in this wine is much more apparent than in a the Shiraz, for example, and a certain lack of mid-palate depth or weight means the wine finishes quite lean and short. £5.99, Co-op, Tesco, Budgens.

Yellow Tail Cabernet Sauvignon 2007
Fermented 'in contact with oak', so I'd guess inner staves in steel tanks, a portion of this Cabernet was also matured for six months in hogsheads. It has quite a dark crimson/purple colour, and a jammy, varietally correct nose of blackcurrant and a bit of plum pie. In the mouth there's a wash of very sweet blackcurrant pastille fruit, with a lot residual sugar evident, giving a slightly grainy feel I find, and the lack of real body or any structure in the mid-palate causing the wine to fall away quickly with a touch of wateriness. There is plenty of spice and a bit of tannic grip in the finish, but it's a wine that doesn't have the easy charm of the Shiraz for me, and like several of the wines in this range, there's a disjointed hollowness caused by the sweetness and lack of concentration. £5.99, Waitrose.

Yellow Tail Pinot Noir 2007
Yellow Tail's Pinot comes from 'Selected vineyards' in Southeast Australia and the grapes were fermented on skins, in contact with French oak staves before maturation in French oak for a further six months. The result is a wine that pours a moderately deep crimson colour, with subdued, gently charry aromas with soft red fruits. On the palate there's a lot of sweetness here, with some definite Pinot character coming through, with strawberry and earthy tones, but I also find something very astringent, or more of a disjointedness, between the sweetness of the fruit and residual sugar, and fairly harsh lemon-drop adjusted acidity. This is nearly a decent, gluggable 'beginners Pinot', but just doesn't convince in the finish. £5.99, Asda.