Language of the label

What do we look for in back labels and how much help do they give us when we buy wine? Can we rely on the information they provide? In an Australian study in 1999 Larry Lockshin and Tim Unwin found that almost 60 per cent of their respondents said they read back labels regularly when making purchasing decisions.

Lockshin and Unwin concluded the most useful information on back labels were “simple descriptions of the tastes or smells of the wine” and that experienced consumers had trouble matching the tastes of wines with their back label descriptions.
I don’t know if Lockshin and Unwin ever revisited the subject, but a decade later back labels still vary enormously in content, style and veracity.

And many still carry unintelligible tasting notes. What, for example, are we to expect of the “brooding mulberry and liquorice characters…enhanced by dark cherry and roasted chestnut” in Chapel Hill’s lovely McLaren Vale Cabernet Sauvignon 2008? Thankfully it’s full bodied, tastes like very ripe cabernet and has the variety’s assertive, firm finish.

Just as fruity, but more to the point, is Shingleback Red Knot McLaren Vale Shiraz 2008. The label says a few words about McLaren Vale and its wine style, then describes the wine more or less intelligibly – “vibrant in colour and highly aromatic, this intensely varietal Shiraz displays ripe strawberry and blackberry fruit and is subtly framed with American and French oak”.

Of more concern, though, are statements like this one on the back label of Mount Langi Ghiran Billy Billi Pinot Grigio 2009, “Mount Langi Ghiran has been a pioneer for cool climate wines in Australia, and was one of the few wineries to produce Pinot Grigio in the early 90s. The name Billi Billi comes from a creek that runs through the property”. Indeed, but does the wine come from the property? The label implies this, but the appellation South Eastern Australia, embracing most of the southern half of the continent, suggests otherwise. Why leave us guessing? If it’s not from the Grampians region why not just say so?

Then there are the factual errors I associate more with large producers – suggesting communications and winemaking arms aren’t talking to one another. Wynns Coonawarra Estate’s back label is one of the best I’ve seen anywhere and it’s still based on David Wynn’s design from the 1950s. But in recent years the back label map depicts Coonawarra township to the east of the Riddoch Highway. In fact, it’s to the west. The error appears on only some of the Wynns range, including the 2008 Cabernet Shiraz Merlot.

Likewise little inaccuracies blemish the exceptionally informative back label on Jacob’s Creek Reserve Chardonnay Pinot Noir 2007. Message: let the winemakers proofread the labels. They’ll tell us that pinot noir, not chardonnay, contributes structure, while chardonnay gives softness, not structure; and that creamy complexity comes not from secondary fermentation but from maturation on spent yeast cells after fermentation. It’s small stuff, but important to brand credibility in the long run.

The amount of information on back labels varies widely, too – from zero to lord’s-prayer-on-head-of-a-pin stuff. The further up the quality tree a wine sits, the less need there is for a back label. For example, Chateau Margaux, one of Bordeaux’s fabulously expensive ‘first growths’ sports no back label and only a simple front label. Australia’s no-back-label brigade includes Mornington Peninsula’s Main Ridge Estate Half Acre Pinot Noir. But Grange has one, though it didn’t until some time in the late eighties or early nineties. The current one adds little and could arguably be scrapped. The front label tells the story anyway, and Grange buyers don’t need to be told to cellar it for 20 years decant before serving.

But for wordy back labels, an old McLaren Vale producer tops the class. I have d’Arenberg The Twenty Eight Road McLaren Vale Mourvedre 2007 in front of me. The back label runs to around 300 words, set in a condensed font at about six or seven points. So read the label before you drink the wine. It’s packed with information about d’Arenberg, the region, the vineyards and the winemaking. It doesn’t attempt to describe the wine, but it builds anticipation and creates a great sense of place.

A number of other producers, including Margaret River’s Voyager Estate and McLaren Vale’s Pirramimma use helpful, long-copy back labels (but a word of advice to Voyager, please stop using all capitals; they’re even harder to read than d’Arenbergs’s tiny font).

And some, like Stanton and Killeen, adopt a minimalist approach. The back label of their just released The Prince ($45) reads, “Who is the Prince?” and the short descriptor, “A dry red blend of estate grown Portuguese grape varieties”. This point-to-the-web approach could work for the growing number of smart phone users – encouraging wineries to write concise back labels supported by the whole story online.

Copyright © Chris Shanahan 2010