Message on a bottle
Art can be found on the outside of the bottle as well as inside
While exponential growth in the variety of wines now available for the consumer is seen by many as an advantage, for some the choice can be overwhelming. Unless a customer has a specific producer and wine in mind, how do they differentiate between thousands of wines? The obvious answer is that wines are often chosen for their label despite the adage, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”
On a practical level, the role of wine labels is to inform the customer of what is in the bottle. There is a legal requirement to state origin, quantity of fluid and volume of alcohol, amongst other details. Strict labelling laws in Europe also require inclusion of precise classification levels, for example DOC or DOCG status in Italy, and historically even the size of the lettering would be specified. With the continued adoption of back labels around the globe — a practice readily embraced amongst New World producers — customers are made aware of the exact contents, including the presence of any ‘ingredients’ that may, for example, cause an adverse reaction, such as asthmatics sensitive to the presence of sulphites.
Aside from these mandatory-labelling requirements, the producer has a free hand to be as creative as their budget allows. Some choose graphics and typesettings that display only the most important details. As one highly respected producer recently remarked, his labels do not include ‘pictures’ because he wants to walk into a restaurant and see what everyone is drinking from 20 paces away. The counter argument being that walking into a restaurant, a bottle of Chateau Mouton Rothschild is immediately recognisable to most wine consumers because of its picture. In fact, each new vintage has an individual piece of new artwork designed specifically to enhance the marketability of the wine.
Baron Philippe de Rothschild was a noted art lover and often seen as the revolutionary force behind modern wine label design. He began the Artists label series in 1924, a series that has been unbroken since the 1945 vintage when avant-garde artist Jean Carlu was commissioned to create a new label for that vintage of Chateau Mouton Rothschild. Since then, artists whose designs have graced the bottles of this First Growth Bordeaux include luminaries such as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and Henry Moore. Recent vintages have displayed the diverse talents of Karl Lagerfeld, Prince Charles and pop artist Jeff Koons. With the growing importance of the Chinese market for the Bordelais coinciding with the auspicious number ‘8’, the 2008 Chateau Mouton Rothschild label includes a painting by Chinese painter Xu Lei.
The bottles and their labels have become precious essentials for some collectors, many of whom may never consume the contents themselves. Neighbour Chateau Lafite added a Chinese symbol for its 2008 release.
Other wine producers have not ignored the link between the Chinese market and strong growth in the luxury goods category. Chanel bought Margaux producer Chateau Rauzan-Segla in 1994. Celebrating their 350th Anniversary Rauzan-Segla commissioned Chanel’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, to design and paint a special edition label for the 2009 vintage. It was hoped that this collaboration and the label, which shows a colourful sketch of the chateau and is signed by Lagerfeld, would help heighten the profile of the wine and considerably boost sales in China.
Dorian Tang is the National Education Manager for ASC Fine Wines (the largest wine importer in China). Tang comments, “Many of our customers often ask to look at the wine label pictures after selecting wines from the list, as some of the wines may not be consumed but given away as a gift, therefore the wine label and
packaging are quite important in the Chinese market. For instance, Penfolds has simple red characters on a white background and has a very meaningful Chinese translation ‘Benfu’ i.e. ‘running for prosperity’.”
Australian producer Leeuwin Estate initiated their famous ‘Art Series’ wine labels with a painting commissioned from the late West Australian artist, Robert Juniper for the 1980 Chardonnay. The owners “essentially believe that winemaking is an art as well as a science and incorporating the works of famous Australian artists on our most opulent and age-worthy wines has been a wonderful opportunity to celebrate both our affinity with the arts and that our wines are proudly Australian”. There are now over 150 paintings in the collection, many of which are displayed at the winery’s gallery in Margaret River. The only labels that do not change annually in the Art Series are those that adorn the Art Series Riesling. John Olsen created four works entitled ‘Frogs in Riesling’. These paintings are ‘irresistible’ in their whimsical way, with the timeless simplicity of the green and yellow design additionally denoting the freshness and allure of the wine within.
Champagne producer Perrier-Jouet launched the house’s prestige Cuvee Belle Epoque in 1970 with the flower-adorned bottle inspired by glass designer Rene Lalique. Veuve Clicquot was one of the first houses to put a logo on their bottles and the ubiquitous Yellow Label was originally designed in white. The colour (more orange than yellow) is now trademarked as ‘Jaune Clicquot’ and was initially produced for the UK market, which preferred a drier wine style. Just like Tiffany Blue, Veuve Clicquot ‘yellow’ is instantly recognisable and has created endless marketing possibilities with merchandising products from ice buckets to beach umbrellas. Champagne Taittinger commissions artists for its ‘Collection Series’ whereby the bottles themselves are decorated. For the Taittinger family, this was a way of reminding people that making champagne is an art. Artists have included Andre Masson, Roy Lichenstein and Victor Vasarely.
As long as the mandatory requirements on a label are fulfilled, the producer can use his artistic licence to create quite individual labels. Simple or intricate; monochrome or brightly coloured; single or multi labelled; circular, rectangular or diamond shaped; the possibilities are infinite. Portuguese producer Malhadinha Nova chose the individual paintings of the family’s four young children to use on their labels. The labels are simple and modern, but above all they are fun and eye-catching.
Australian Fine Wine Specialist and Master of Wine, Andrew Caillard, now makes wine in the Barossa Valley from two exceptional vineyards of Mataro (often known as Mourvedre). A talented painter, Caillard’s own picture of a peacock, painted in 2012 and inspired by a 19th century Japanese wood-cut design by Uttagaw Hiroshige, provides the attractive label for the Caillard Mataro 2011. Interestingly, the term ‘peacock’s tail’ is used in wine tasting to describe a wine with textural length. Esteemed Piedmont producer, Vietti, creator of textbook Barolos, have labelled some of their wines with original works that were inspired by that particular vintage. These may include lithographs, etchings, silkscreens and linocuts with the first 100 labels being signed by the artist in question.
Boutique Chianti Classico producer, Fattoria Nittardi, has taken the art of wine labels and packaging one step further than many. This does not come as a surprise when considering the links between the remarkable history of this property and the current owner’s individual involvement in the world of fine art. The estate of Nittardi lies in the heart of the Chianti Classico region, between the provinces of Siena and Florence. The property belonged to the unparalleled renaissance artist Michelangelo Bounarroti during the 16th century who is reported to have sent some Nittardi wine to Rome as a ‘genuine gift to the Pope’. The property was purchased in 1982 and painstakingly reconstructed with the vineyards replanted by its new owners, Peter Femfert and Stefania Canali. Femfert is a German publisher and art gallery owner, whilst his Venetian wife, Canali, is a historian. Since the release of the 1981 vintage, Fattoria Nittardi annually commissions an eminent artist to paint both the label and wrapping paper for a limited edition of their Chianti Classico — Casanuova di Nittardi. The last four releases have been dedicated to the four seasons, beginning with an autumn label by Gunter Grass for the 2008 vintage. Korean artist Kim Tschang-Yeul painted the latest label for the 2011 vintage, and the last in the season’s cycle. The label, which has just been
released in Seoul, features Kim Yschang-Yeul’s signature water drops and allude to the promise of winter — a season when nature evolves silently beneath the earth, awaiting the warmth of spring. The list of previously featured artists includes Yoko Ono, whose ‘ink on paper’ label and wrapping paper adorn the 2005 vintage of Casanuova di Nittardi. Over the years artists have chosen various materials to create their individual works, including watercolours, inks, acrylics, pastels and pencils, on both paper and canvas.
Elegant and timeless, humorous and quirky, edgy and fashionable, or classic and understated, each wine label tells its own story and may well convey a message about the wine within the bottle. It is only by trying the wine itself that a real sense of what the winemaker is trying to achieve can be grasped — for finene wine in particular, this is where the true expression of the winemaker can be fully appreciated.
Barossa Valley's Caillard Mataro 2011's beautiful peacock label