Critter Wines: Do They All Suck?

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[Photograph: Kara Newman]

When I reviewed Hello Kitty wine a month or so back, the topic of "Critter wines" inevitably arose.

"Critter wines"—which feature a cat, dog, rooster, or other cute "critter" on the label—are generally sniffed at in the wine world. Some people love critter wines, but I've been warned that good critter wines are few and far between—that cute labels often compensate for mediocre wines.

Today, I'm putting that theory to the test.

I put out a call to wine companies to send over their best critter wine, and gamely sampled whatever arrived in the mail: about 20 bottles in total.

They were divided into white, rose, red, and ice wines, and evaluated on a 5-point scale for Cuteness Level from 1 (kinda cute) to 5 (downright adorable) and a General Ranking based on opinion of the wine itself, again ranging from 1 (okay) to 5 (excellent).

Obviously this it totally, utterly subjective, so take these rankings with a little levity, please! But at least I can say with absolute conviction: Not all critter wines suck.

Best in Breed: White Wine Category

FouFou Le Blanc 2009 Sauvignon Blanc, from Mutt Lynch Winery (Central Coast, CA)

Cuteness: 5
Ranking: 5

The label shows a saucy cartoon dog, cavorting and wearing a beret. There's a bone on the screwtop cap. Even their marketing materials arrived secured with a paper clip in the shape of a bone. But the wine was fresh, fragrant with pear and lychee, light-bodied, crisp and refreshing. I would gladly drink this again.

All of the Mutt Lynch wines scored well, including the "Unleashed Chardonnay," the "Merlot Over and Play Dead," (the back label reads "Merlot over...bite me") and the "Canis Major" Zinfandel.

Best in Breed: Red Wine Category

Big Softy 2008 Margaret River Shiraz (Australia)

Cuteness: 5
Ranking: 5

The label shows a drawing of the rear end of a pig, curly tail and all. Pretty cute, huh? Although the wine notes about "big plump flavors and soft cuddly tannins" made me cringe, the description was apt: it has a soft, luscious texture and the tannins don't overwhelm. And yes, the flavors are big and mouth-filling; lots of dark berry but finishing dry. The aroma was interesting too, spicy and dark chocolatey. I wasn't a fan of the Big Softy Chardonnay, unfortunately.

Best in Breed: Rose Category

Game Bird Blush, Heron Hill Vineyards (Hammondsport, NY). No vintage listed.

Cuteness: 2
Ranking: 5

This is where the cuteness-to-quality level started to break down. Within the rose wines, the most adorable bottles masked the most dreadful wines inside. This one, part of the "Game Bird Series," wasn't particularly darling, and in fact, showed a rather dignified line drawing of a turkey. But, it had good balance and acidity, and a touch of carbonation. The fragrance reminded me of ripe pear and berries, and it had a sweet, full, fruit flavor but a dry finish.

Best in Breed: Icewine Category

Fulkerson 2007 Vidal Blanc Iced Wine (Dundee, NY)

Cuteness: 3
Ranking: 4

The drawing on the bottle was a woolly mammoth (I think?). It's a sweet white wine: honeyed, sherry-like, rich and sweet but not cloying, and a pretty golden color.

As for the rest of the critter wines from this winery, some were good, many were OK, and a couple were downright regrettable. But overall, I don't think I'll be so quick to write off critter wines the next time I'm faced with a kangaroo or a penguin on the label.

Full disclosure: All of the bottles were donated by the wine companies (or their PR firms), and it was made clear that there was no guarantee that the wines would receive coverage.

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