One of the reasons consumers find wine intimidating is the labels. Particularly for wines from classic Old World regions, only more knowledgeable consumers will be able to tell which words on a label correspond to the region and estate and perhaps the grape varieties used in the wine. However, most of us are left in the dark and, at best, can only determine the country of origin, vintage and alcohol level.
Old World labels
Old World producers emphasise regions rather than grape varieties. These regions are classified as appellations – protected geographical areas that have regulations related to which grapes can be used to make wine there and other quality factors. This often links to what the French call terroir, a combination of soil, climatic conditions and manpower to make the best-possible wine from the area. The simplest label includes the producer’s name, appellation, country, vintage and alcohol level. Wines from more renowned areas within an appellations, such as those from better sites or single vineyards, may have the names of the sites on the labels. Producers expect consumers to trust the appellations, so they do not include grape varieties on labels. Amongst all the classic Old World wine regions, only Germany and Alsace in France are the exceptions to this rule.
New World labels
Then come the New World wine producers. Aware of the fact that consumers are often confused by Old World labels and don’t know what they are drinking, they produce 100% varietal wines and put the names of the varieties on the labels. Even for blended wines, they state all grapes varieties, often with percentages. Consumers finally have a clear sense of what they are drinking and, more importantly, what grape varieties they prefer. New World producers even use back labels with brief descriptions of the wines to help consumers to make their selections.
While big-name appellations such as Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rioja have resisted this change, some producers in smaller or less prestigious appellations like the South of France, Sicily and Rías Baixas copy New World producers and list grape varieties as well as wine descriptions on their labels.
With hundreds of wine appellations and even more documented grape varieties in the world, it’s no wonder we find wine labels so confusing. Even though we may know the appellations and styles of wine from these appellations, there are still numerous wine producers from which to choose. No wine expert can identify all the wines from a particular appellation, so some producers play on the design of their labels to make the wines stand out on the shelves, hoping to attract consumers’ attention.
In the next Rewriting Wine 101 article, we’ll discuss label design.
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