Dr Max Lake’s Classic Wines of Australia (1966) is one of my favourite wine books. Although it was published nearly 50 years ago it’s a faithful portrayal of the Australian wine industry during the mid-1960s. As a young wine auctioneer during the 1980s, I “removed” for auction Lake’s remnant Longueville cellar. As I excavated bottles out of his termite-infested treasure trove, he sat on a wooden box and over three days talked about each of the vintages and the stories behind his collection. Although it was a dirty job cleaning the bottles, cataloguing and packing the wine, it was a fascinating experience. The wines included rare Maurice O’Shea wines from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Grange vintages of the 1950s, 1948 Penfolds Kalimna Cabernet Sauvignon and 1955 Wynns Michael Hermitage. It was like a re-enactment play of his book. If this collection was sold at auction today, it would make at least $2 million, but during the mid-1980s the wines fetched comparatively very little.
Inspired by the book, I began making a list of Australia’s great vintages while still a director and co-owner of Langton’s. I thought it would work as an excellent complement to Langton’s Classification of Australian Wine (which was created by Stewart Langton and myself in 1989).
But after a long hiatus, I have completed – well, almost – A Canon of Australian Wine, which will be published in 2023. It forms part of a three-volume work on the history of Australian wine called The Australian Ark. Each of the entries spanning from 1792 to the present day comprises a small story or explanation. 1962 Penfolds Bin 60A is an obvious entry because it is regarded by many observers as the greatest Australian wine of the 20th century. 1951 Penfolds Bin 1 Grange Hermitage is also a tangible entry because it was the start of something brilliant and lasting. Less obvious are the wines that capture the zeitgeist or ambition of the times. 1847 Camden Park Scyras, 1876 Kirkton Red Hermitage, 1935 Yalumba Carte d’Or Riesling, 1967 Osborn d’Arenberg Red Burgundy, 1984 Seppelt Salinger and 2000 Casella Yellow Tail releases are but important achievements.
The Yellow Tail story, for instance, highlights the opportunities and challenges of Australian wine in the commercial markets, especially the US. Its extraordinary success was achieved through great timing, happenstance, a brand that suited the tastes of the average consumer and good marketing. Through the intercession of the Australian Trade Commission a partnership was established between Griffith bulk-wine producer Casella and major US importer Deutsch Family Wine and Spirits. The story goes that export director John Soutter purchased an off-the-shelf label design from Adelaide designer Barbara Harkness. After inking the deal, he believed it possible that Casella could sell 25,000 cases of Yellow Tail in the US within a year. Within 18 months, around two million cases had been sold making it one of the fastest, if not the fastest launch ever for a premium wine brand. 2000 Yellow Tail Chardonnay and 2000 Yellow Tail Shiraz highlight the beginning of this remarkable success story, but also represent the flip side of Australia’s fine wine agenda. Wine Business Monthly reported “Whether that flavour profile was indicative of the natural tastes of wine or was engineered to suit the Coca-Cola tastes of the American consumer is up for debate, but it certainly allowed the brand to achieve the title of one of the fastest growing brands in history.” In 2021 it was recognised as “the most powerful wine brand in the world” (the fourth time in four years) according to the Wine Intelligence Global Wine Brand Power Index.
The observation that Yellow Tail’s success undermines the reputation of fine Australian wine in export markets is unsubstantiated. Commercial and fine wine have always co-existed in every market since the dawn of time. On the other hand, fine wine critics and aficionados can be dreadful snobs. The Yellow Tail wine styles are perfect for their targeted market and that’s the genius of the brand. I received a bottle of 2012 Yellow Tail 20 Year Anniversary Limited Release McLaren Vale Shiraz. Aged in American oak for two years, it is a delicious robust dry red, with deep colour, rich dark fruits, chocolatey textures, plentiful malt/ mocha oak and underlying roasted chestnut, chinotto/soy notes. With 10 years of bottle age, it still shows lovely density and freshness (95 points). While not the real thing, so to speak, it is a fine souvenir of John Casella’s great achievement.