We search in vain for a message on the bottle
The uselessness of wine labels.
Ignorance isn't bliss; winemakers should take a less laid-back approach to keeping us informed. Photograph: Joss McKinley/Gallery Stock.
This week’s column seemed so simple: just me, a fastapproaching deadline and a list of complaints about wine labels. I’ve moaned for years about the refusal of the French to tell me anything I might want to know on their bottles.
It’s like someone who’s introducing himself shrugging contemptuously and walking off after being asked what he does for a living. No grape names, no regional information – none that a novice could understand, anyway. A vintage, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (don’t know what that is? Tough) and probably an owner’s name, but no indication of whether that owner has been dead for 200 years and his inheritors have been bought out by a conglomerate.
Often, there is just one label. The French may have a word for the back label – une contre étiquette – but, as we have established, naming things is neither here nor there. Even when there is a second label, it usually has a lot of guff about expressing the authenticity of terroir and respecting nature. “Each year, our recompense is the harvest,” claims the back of my 2002 Vigne de l’Enfant Jésus. Maybe. That bottle is worth £75. Winemakers are legally obliged to tell you when their wine contains sulphites. These hugely useful words are the only English on the label, apart from “Produce of France”.
But let’s not limit ourselves to picking on the French. My 2004 Sassicaia tells me neither the owner of the vineyard nor that this wine was one of the first of the so-called Super Tuscans that made this part of Italy nearly as dribbled over by high-end wine lovers as Bordeaux. (Sassicaia contains two of the same grapes as Bordeaux: Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. No, you won’t get that from the label.) The back of the bottle is disturbed only by a label that tells me it “contains sulphites”, in 20 languages. Of all the things I’d like to learn from the outside of a bottle of great wine, how to convey in Magyar that someone has added a preservative is pretty low down the list.
It is the New World that has changed this. The Penfolds Magill Estate gives so much information about the handpicked grapes, vineyard, fermentation process and need for decanting that I could probably make a bottle myself. Better yet, with a wine called 2000 Magill Estate Shiraz, it’s not much of a mystery which grapes have been used.
“What is wrong with the Europeans?” I wondered, as I examined a bottle of Bolney Estate rosé at its Sussex winery, searching in vain for enlightenment about what I’d be consuming if I chose to drink it. If I buy a top, the label tells me about the materials – and none of my outfits has yet entered my digestive system. A marketing failure of this kind won’t make Bolney’s wines taste as good as top Burgundy or Sassicaia – or Magill Estate, come to that. You’re supposed to copy the innovators, not the old farts. It’s called progress.
The reason why this column is not the simple matter it was supposed to be is that, while researching it, I discovered that some labels are not marketing failures at all, even if they are the luxury-goods equivalent of an information blackout. Back in the 1940s, Château Mouton Rothschild began asking artists to decorate its bottles and the practice continues: the list includes Jean Cocteau, Andy Warhol and Marc Chagall. You don’t want to cloud up a Chagall with words and you probably want to buy it, if you can afford it, whatever it’s on.
There have been wine labels for more than 3,000 years and most have not catered to the literalist whims of wine populists. Many have been worse than reticent: Bordeaux used to be known for selling a lot more wine than it produced and, as recent forgery scandals demonstrate, Appellation Outright Porky is still flying off the shelves. Nonetheless, I believe that experimental winebuying should be encouraged. And a little basic information, handily situated, would surely harm the punter a lot less than any number of sulphites.
Next week: Ruth Padel on nature