Wine Labels

Wine labels…interesting subject.

Got into a discussion this week about marketing wine with a friend of mine back in the U.S who’s helping us out with finding new distributors in the States, and the topic came up: how do people buy wine, why do they choose certain wines, and how does the packaging respond to that? I think one of the most interesting things that came up is how different the French and American wine markets are. One of the things I think is pretty big over here in French is the importance of terroir, which basically is a sense of place. French is VERY regionally dominated, and each region produces very distinctive products that are a reflection of that specific terroir: the combination that climate, soil conditions, ecosystem, and even culture has on the specific flavors of that product. It’s not just for wine, either; cheese, bread, olives, honey: all kinds of food stuff is heavily marketed with an eye on the region, and its specific and distinctive flavor, that the product came from.

In layman’s terms, it means, “if you grow the exact same grape anywhere else, it’s going to taste different”. This is controversial in wine circles, but it is generally accepted here in France.

As an added thought (weird for Americans who think a three hour drive is a puddle jump): regions are pretty small. A wine that is from Faugéres, which is a region that is considered to produce good quality wines, would not be compared to a region even twenty miles away. The terroir is different. To a degree, this is dead on – certain grape varieties thrive better in certain conditions, and thus muscat is grown in Frontignan but not here in Cournonterral…this is fifteen minutes away. Confused yet? 🙂

It’s not confusing for the French. Sense of place is much more important to them, and I have many times found myself in the culturally baffling situation of listening to a bunch of French dudes eating pizza, listening to hiphop and watching rugby get into a passionate and heated discussion about Rhône valley or Bordeaux wine. Or some esoteric regional cheese. They KNOW, and it’s VERY important, and going wine shopping with my husband can take…just, a while. 🙂

Here you go. You know, for the rest of us. I’m trying to learn, myself. Tip: Don’t take it too seriously, experiment, and most importantly, drink what you like. It’s just old grapes, after all! (I might get tagged by the French police for saying that, but seriously, it’s true.)

In France, terroir is considered the dominant force in wine-making and thus is heavily emphasized, especially on the label, as a mark of distinction.

This is map of the wine regions JUST in the Languedoc-Roussilon region.

It gets more complicated when you consider the importance of appellation control in France: sounds complicated, but basically appellation control (or appellation d’origine contrôllée, check it out here: Appellation d’origine contrôllée)is why champagne is from Champagne, and everywhere else makes sparkling wine. It’s why Roquefort cheese is from the Roquefort region, and everywhere else just makes blue cheese (even though, if you look at the label, all blue cheese are innoculated with penicillin roqueforti). It’s proof of provenance, of place…and for the French, this is critically important.

In the U.S? It’s just different. Some people don’t worry about knowing a lot about wine, which is actually fine, and some people know a little about place (although I think it tends to focus on large regions, like “I like shiraz from Australia”, or “I am a big fan of Napa Valley wines”.) I think there are more and more people taking an interest in wine and reading more about it, going to tastings, and experimenting with what tastes best for them.

The article I read this week summed up a key difference nicely though, and it pinpointed a reason why marketing of French wine in the U.S is a little problematic: French people are obsessed with terroirisme (remember, sense of place, NOT suicide bombs) and in the U.S, the emphasis is more of cépage: which is grape variety and blend. TOTALLY valid and in my opinion a great indication of whether you will like a wine or not. (Some people hate chardonnays, some people only drink cabernet sauvignon, and the movie Sideways did a great job of popularizing those big sexy pinot noirs!)

Here’s the article; very well written  (by Michael Cohen, Girish Nanda and James Wilson) and super interesting: The Future of French Wine: Overcoming Terroirisme and Stagnation

From the article:

“If there is a product whose provenance consumers care about, it is wine. There are two methods of classifying wine, cépage and terroir. The cépage (varietals) method identifies the wine by the type of grape used in its production. In contrast, the terroir (land-based) method highlights the geographical origin of the wine, its region-specific taste and the winemaker’s skill.

Traditionally, in France, wine is classified by its terroir. This classification emerged over the centuries as villages developed specific approaches to winemaking, resulting in regionally unique wines. Consequently, sophisticated French consumers developed a rich understanding of these regions, which enabled them to identify the nuances between wines and the geographic impact on their flavors. As viticulture developed in the New World — in countries and cultures that did not traditionally consume wine —cépage emerged as the principal means of differentiating and marketing wines. Initially this approach sought to overcome the lack of traditionalterroirs in the New World. However, in the last 50 years, it has emerged as the dominant marketing trend in the wine industry. In fact, the industry consensus is that the average consumer in 2012 is more likely to select his wine based on its cépage and the brand that the winemaker has developed than on the wine’s terroir. (emphasis mine)

In defiance of marketing trends in the wine industry, many French winemakers continue to identify and market their wine based on terroir.This desire to perpetuate tradition maintains a degree of complexity in understanding French wine, limiting its accessibility to new consumers and hindering sales. Rather than looking to adapt, many French winemakers and critics revert to terroirisme and overemphasize the importance of terroir in defining wine. This approach does not seek to make good wine, but rather emphasizes the traditional aspects of geographically centered wine production, ignoring modern trends.”

Thus, when it comes to labels, this is HISTORICALLY (it’s changing as different wine markets open up) one of the big differences in American and European wine labeling. American (and other New World wines) often label by varietal grape; Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and so forth. European wines are more often labeled by growing region, as this usually defines both the climate and the type of grapes allowed to be grown there. When a French winemaker labels by grape varietal, it is usually because it does not meet AOC standards. This does not mean it’s bad wine…he or she may have simply decided to grow a type of grape or blend a style of wine not “allowed” in a particular region. Thus, the label is more classical as well (typically and grossly generalizing here): the focus is on presentation of the information, the estate, maybe a seal, all with centrally presented script lettering, maybe a little gold leaf to make it look bourgeouise, and voilà!. 😉

American and New World wines (Australia, Argentina, etc) typically focus more on grape variety. Having done a lot of reading this week, I think some of the most innovative wine labels also come from the New World, since labelling is more likely to be a determining factor for an American about what bottle of wine they purchase. Americans tend to be more saavy with packaging, and I think there are some FANTASTIC ideas coming out now with packaging a wine.

Here’s another great article about wine label design, from Wine Business Monthly: Leaveraging the Language of Wine Labels

I guess, in short, I’m thinking a lot about how  to present our French wine in a foreign market. I guess, for really expensive high end wines, classic design is still a signifier for quality; but most people buy “table wines”, ie, under 20 dollars a bottle, for different reasons. It’s interesting how packaging and design prioritizes information, how visual imagery brings up associations (edgy, classic, young, for women, etc). It’s given me a lot to think about, as an artist!

Here are some of my favorite designs I found over the last few days. What do you think? What are your favorites? I would totally drink these wines. How do you buy wine: graper variety? Region? Packaging? A combination of the three?

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2 thoughts on “Wine Labels

  1. a delightful article, as are you..:-) will look forward to my very own LB signed and numbered label..a votre sante xo

  2. My brother designed the Tentacle bottle! He’s gotten a lot of good attention for it.

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