You know when someone tells you they simply choose a wine by the label? Part of you wants to laugh at this nearly clichéd statement from a wine beginner. But part of you knows it’s also true for all of us, from a beginner to any overavid wine geek. Yes, I'll admit it—I still choose wine by the label sometimes.
Of course, I usually have a little more knowledge about the wine ahead of time than just the label—perhaps I’ve been in the vineyard, tasted in the cellar, or bought the wine for years. But in the end, the label is important. It should provide both raw information—vintage, appellation, producer—but also impact the aesthetic sense as well. A great wine label should stick in your mind: You know you love a wine when you can spot a bottle of it across the room, with just half its label showing.
A great label makes you want the wine even more than just the thought of tasting the wine itself. A great wine label speaks of the wine inside the bottle, and it augments the whole experience. Like the right frame for a photo or painting, no wine is complete without its label. And some are better than others.
Some of my favorite labels include the Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr bottling. The simple etching depicts the steeply sloped vineyards in the background and the sundial that always lets you know what time it is (time for Riesling, of course).
I like Clos des Papes’ Châteauneuf-du-Pape label as well, both the red and the white. The label is simple and pure at first glance, but increasingly elegant and complex the more you gaze at the lettering and crest. It nearly oozes sophistication and class.
Some labels like Prüm’s and Clos des Papes’ have long histories behind them. Others have shorter but no less interesting histories. David Trafford’s Shiraz has, in just a few short years, become one of the best wines being made in South Africa. The label for it is a sleek black-and-white design with a strip across the top. At first glance, it looks like a trendy abstract picture, but as it draws you in, you realize it’s an architectural rendering of the de Trafford winery. (Architecture was Trafford’s previous profession before starting the winery.) In addition, Trafford's wife, Rita, is an artist, and her colorful work adorns their Chenin Blanc bottling, making a nice contrast in styles.
Some labels make your mouth water just looking at them. For example, the late Didier Dagueneau’s Silex bottling from Pouilly-Fumé, with its simple, lone jagged chunk of rock. It’s severe and lean, but also alluring at the same time. It’s the perfect enunciator for the wine in the bottle.
To reach exalted label status, it’s also important for a label to be consistent. I find design tweaks over the years to be a distraction, while outright redesigns can be a disaster. Anyone remember the old Tollot-Beaut labels? This Aloxe-Corton-based Burgundy domaine's label had a beautiful gilded grape leaf scrolling across the top with an elegant, slightly blurred soft orange border, but a few years ago they changed to a stark, minimalist label and jarring flange top bottle. I almost can’t look at it now ... ouch.
Making a great label is no easy task either. I know first-hand how difficult it is coming up with a label for a new wine. I had to don the design cap myself when coming up with a label for my own Syrah, a wine with zero history of its own. No family crest to lean on. No starkly idiosyncratic piece of terroir to help define it.
Of course, label aesthetics are highly individual, and everyone will have their own personal favorites. What are some of yours?
Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape
Joh. Jos. Prüm Wehlener Sonnenuhr
Didier Dagueneau's Silex
de Trafford Shiraz
Tollot-Beaut, before ...
... and Tollot-Beaut today.
Jared Wagner — Seattle, WA — January 7, 2009 2:28pm ET
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