An Introduction to Wine Labels
I’ve just come back from my first ever auction. It was a bankruptcy auction where apparently fine art and wine companies have gone bust and members of the public can come in and low ball bid their old wares. Well, seemed like too good a chance to turn down for me. I went down and had a quick look at the wines. There were one or two incredibly high priced wines on offer, but otherwise I wasn’t that impressed. Mostly they were average wines from areas in France with famous names. If you’re bidding this stuff at a bankruptcy auction and paying more than a fiver a bottle for it, then you’re missing the point…or so I thought.
The lots came up and I couldn’t believe my ears. The auctioneer was doing a great job talking them up, and the punters lapped it up. Each and every bottle up went for what I can only say was at best retail price, some of the more famous brands going for much higher than you could have walked down the road to Majestic and paid for them. Was it auction fever? Well yeah possibly. I think it’s got more to do with most people’s inability to read labels and understand what they’re buying above the name.
This is a famous trick used in the wine industry for years. Non-wine producing nations, with slightly less understanding of what they’re buying tend to go with what they know in times of crisis. There’s a famous brand from the 80s (still going now I think) called Piat D’Or. This (British invented) wine was sold with a big gold label and the tag line “The French adore Le Piat D’Or”. Marketing genius. It worked so well. People come into the shop and they saw the gold label, they knew it, they didn’t trust themselves to look around, so they went for it.
To this day marketing is an almighty power in the UK wine market as general punters struggle to grasp what they’re buying. Look at companies like Wolf Blass, or Blossom Hill. The marketing involved sells perfectly. These aren’t bad wines at all, I’m not suggesting they’re not good, but they take a much larger share of the market than they would otherwise because it’s familiar. We know it. We buy it.
Wine labels can be broken down to more manageable chunks.
Starting with the producers’ name…
Let’s use Blossom Hill. A product of the Diageo empire. It’s there up close and in your mush. Now what these guys do well is consistency. They are going to produce a wine each and every year that tastes exactly the same as the last. Someone comes back to it, they want to know what they’re buying. Will they ever produce something that’ll knock your socks off? Probably not, but the chances of buying a duff one is equally small. It’s solid. It’s consistent. It sells.
On the flip side of this, let’s look at a couple of French Chateau producers. Let’s take Chateau Montrose and Chateau Mugron. Both with pictures of beautiful, ornate chateaus on the front. One will set you back £100, the other £10. How would you know the difference? Once you walk away from big brand names, you need to read the details further.
For independent producers, vintages are important…
Think about what we said regarding the consistency of big brands. They have huge areas of vineyards and if in one year the weather isn’t great in one place, they can source from somewhere else in the empire and still produce a consistent wine.
Smaller producers are a bit stuck. If the year’s not great for the vines where theirs are, then it’s not as easy. The product will alter year on year. If you’re looking at two wines from Bordeaux, you can compare chateaus in the same year, or the same chateau over two different years. You need to keep something consistent.
People who are into their wine aren’t always just trying to sound like knobs when they bang on about vintage. It does make a difference for the smaller guys. Luckily most of the staff at wine merchants (the Majestics of this world) have a decent input in what years where like and can help you get started with comparisons.
It’s helpful to get to know a few quality classifications…
Most wine producing countries have their own classification system. These systems control area, production method, etc. to ensure that each year if the product is as good as it can be for that wine in that area. Chablis is a village, but it’s also an appellation. Anything with that on the label you know it’s produced under strict guidelines in a very specific area of France. Are there better Chablis wines than others? Of course, but just the having the name Chablis on the bottle proves a base of quality (or that’s the idea) and commands a premium on price because of it.
There’s a catch here though. Sneaky wine makers put things like “Vin de Bordeaux” on their bottles. Now you may think: “I’ve heard of Bordeaux, they make great wines” and pay up accordingly (as was sadly the case earlier today at this auction). Well that’s not actually a controlled labeling term. It’s table wine from South West France. It may still be a great drop of wine in an exceptional vintage at a ridiculously good value price. But just watch it before paying up for it.
It’s a lot easier to talk about national classification systems as we talk about the specific country in a few weeks.
Don’t be phased by comments on production methods…
The label might have a big old “OAK AGED” or “BARREL AGED” or something as impressive sounding. Remember it’s there as info to you. It means something. It will alter the taste, maybe sometime in ways you don’t like. Chardonnay for example is notorious for being sold in heavily oaked styles. Personally, I don’t like it like that. If that info is on the bottle I won’t pick it up. Other people will. It’s all good info.
Main thing to look out for is the grape variety…
Some bottles won’t have this on the bottle. The French are notoriously frustrating when it comes to this. They think everyone in the world should know white Chablis is made from Chardonnay. Ignore that for now.
As you continue to drink more and more wine, you’ll start to get a handle on grape varieties. Which you like, or which you don’t. How they change across the world.
I can’t help but think that the guys and girls who just paid £20 a bottle for table wine could have benefitted a bit from reading this. Then maybe they’d have just done what I did; sacked it all off, pick up a couple of cheap Lowry prints, and head for home.
Left staring at Lancashire mill scenes and wondering what might have been.