18 Jul 2013

What can one tell of a wine from wrapping?

The packaging of all kinds of produce has been used for as long as anyone can remember to make them more attractive to potential buyers, and wine is clearly no exception. Paradoxically, people are in theory quite suspicious of appearances, whilst regularly falling for seductive trappings. Popular sayings in different languages clearly express the idea that packaging bears little or no relation to what is to be found inside. For example : « you can’t  judge a book by looking at the cover », or the French equivalent « l’habit ne fait pas le moine », meaning « you cannot tell a monk by his dress ». But packaging is clearly important and indeed useful to help distinguish one product from another and to situate it somewhere on an aesthetic or economical scale of values, even when these codes are more or less ignored or transgressed by the producer, knowingly or otherwise.

Sparkling Champagne, in particular, was an innovative and expensive type of wine to produce, back in in the 19th century when industrial bottles and machine labeling began to be part of the regular process for packaging wines. To help justify the prices asked and to project an image of luxury and wealth that satisfied the egos of consumers as well as the pockets of producers and retailers, labeling of sparkling wines from the Champagne region got very fancy, as some of the examples above clearly show. It is worth noting that the Champagne region had not yet been delimitated, and even less become an Appellation Contrôlée at this time. Interesting also to note that individual Champagne villages were then considered to be significant, and in fact more so than the term Champagne itself, which had not yet become the significant regional collective brand that was later to be developed.

I have often been struck by the fact that few of my wine journalist colleagues seem to talk much about wine labels or packaging in general. Is this because they consider the subject unworthy of attention, or does it mean that they do not like judging books by covers, with which I tend to agree anyway ? But the subject merits our attention nonetheless, and I personally enjoy many of the efforts of graphic designers and other creative artisans to make the bottles we gaze at on shelves fall into our hands. Our dominant sense is clearly the visual one, so we may as well admit it. Ask any shop manager in the wine section of a self-service outlet, and they will surely tell you that pricing and packaging play the main part in decision-making on the part of the majority of wine buyers whom, it should be underlined, are NOT regular readers of wine blogs, web sites or magazines devoted to what they simply consider (and perhaps rightly) as just another drink.

The appearance of a bottle definitely makes a statement about the producer and the product. Just take a look at any of those created by (or for) Randall Grahm in California to get the point. A couple are shown above. Naturally this kind of label is speaking to a bunch of initiates, who have some access to the words and thought process of someone as sophisticated, witty and creative as Grahm.

It can of course be argued that the best ( ?) and longest-known wines hardly need sophisticated packaging to sell themselves, since they have already found an audience who is often prepared to pay totally absurd sums of money just to possess one such bottle and for whom the label, apart from the prestige it reflects on the owner of that bottle amongst his friends or business relations, is secondary at best. But what about all those other wines, which probably constitute about 99% of the world vinous lake?

Let’s take a look at the more-or-less entry level in price terms. All kinds of ideas have been tried to make wines more accessible to a wider public, and one can but approve of these attempts. One of the latest to come on the market (although I had previously spotted this idea in use for a Provençal wine being sold in Thailand about 15 years ago) is wine in aluminium cans. These small cans (187 milliliters, or the equivalent of a quarter bottle) retail in France for 2,50 euros and have recently been launched by a company called Winestar. Don’t like the name much, but that’s not the point perhaps. I received three of the wines (as shown above) from this new company. A white, a rosé and a red. All were from the vast and usually inexpensive Languedoc region of southern France, and indeed from appellations contrôlées within that. Now I realize that the idea of wine in cans will induce a grimace on the part of many wine buffs, but I say why not? If this convenient manner of carrying and consuming induces large numbers of younger people to the joys of wine, then let’s hope the idea takes off in a big way. It is surely better for them than the sugar-infested mixed alcohol beverages that many consume at the moment.  And it may lead to a greater degree of sophistication and interest in drinks with some refinement of flavour, rather then just alcohol and sugar. One can always dream I suppose. Anyway I decided to taste these three wines from a company that claims to be the Nespresso of wine. Now that's quite a claim since the Nespresso product is of superior quality in its flavours. To be honest, I did not find this to be the case with Winestar, as you will see.  Of course, when one knows that a wine has been served from a can, the natural tendency is to think that it has a metallic flavour, and this happened to me with 2 out of the 3 samples I had. I will have to repeat the test, with other similar wines and with the wines poured into a glass by someone in another room. But, for what they is worth, here are my tasting notes.

Winestar, Corbières blanc 2011
A clean rather soft nose that shows aromas of yellow fruit. Ok on the palate, although it seems a bit firm, more chemical than fruity. Has some body to it but this doesn’t quite hide what I construed, perhaps wrongly, as a mineral and metallic texture.
Winestar, Languedoc rosé 2012
This has pleasant fruit flavours of the grenache/cinsault type.Quite precisely defined and lively on the palate, with persistence of this pleasant fruit character. I still found that it had a lightly metallic finish.
Winestar, Corbières rouge 2011
The nose is oaky and smoky – a bit too much so in fact. This is rustic in texture, and even a bit rough. It is an honest but unrefined wine of the type that one finds very often in this area, although the bad ones are getting thankfully fewer by the year. At least it didn’t seem metallic to me! Next time we’ll do this blind and see whether the metallic feel was a figment of my imagination and prejudice.

Another recent opportunity to test relationships between packaging and wines was given to me by a friend who imports wines from various countries, mostly far away, to France. He was looking at some samples of possible additions to his already extensive range and asked me, as he often does, to give my opinion on them and their value for money.

First up were this pair that hail, unexpectedly, from Hungary and the somewhat tradition-bound region of Tokay, best known for its very sweet (and often magnificent) Aszu wines. This pair comprised a dry white and a sweet white, but not an Aszu. Now Hold and Hollo is a pretty strange name for a wine brand and I’m not quite sure that I get it all. I think I grasped the « Hold » part (ha!ha!) as the pimples on the plastic wrap that doubles as a label makes it far easier to grab the bottle out of an ice bucket. But « Hollo » ? Another surprise was the price. Visual creativity is good and I have no objection to these examples, but somehow they convey to me an image of a fairly inexpensive wine, perhaps in the realm of 10 euros or even less. But in fact they would have to retail for at least double that sum. Therein lies, I think, a discrepancy between the target/image and the price. What about the wines? The dry white was excellent, vibrant, firmly structured and lingering. The sweet was a bit ordinary and lacking in zip. So, what else?

These two wines, which hail from the Yarra Valley in Victoria, Australia, seemed to me to have it all. Refinement of textures and flavours (at least the Chardonnay and the Pinot noir, pictured here), creative and easy to read labels, an arresting brand name, Innocent Bystander , and screwcaps to keep the goods in, the air out, and the wine free of unwanted contamination. To add to which, I thought that the back labels, which are too often wasted on a load of guff about brilliant « terroir » and imagined flavours, not to mention trite food pairings, were well and concisely put, saying just enough about the winemaking approach and the place of origin to intrigue one without telling the potential consumer what he or she should be tasting in their glass (see below).

I saw a photo of the winery, which seems as elegantly modern as the packaging of these wines, and which also incorporates a good restaurant. This producer seems to have worked out a fully coherent ensemble in which all the parts link well to the others and the whole is harmonious. Congratulations! 

Another example for the road, with a different story but a similar approach in which aesthetics of some boldness tell a dramatic story. I have a friend, called Raimond de Villeneuve, whose vineyard in Provence was totally devastated by a hailstorm on July 7th last year. Raimond works hard to make ends meet and has made a slot for himself due to the excellence of his wines and a good dose of creativity.  Château de Roquefort is the name of the estate and its winery is far from the latest in high-tech as Raimond is not rich. He has just managed to keep together a family estate, or what is left of it, by hard work and talent. In a few minutes last July he saw everything on the floor, the 24 hectares of vines stripped of leaves and, of course, fruit. Later, after calling a few vigneron friends, the idea emerged amongst them to give Raimond small plots of vineyards here and there to harvest so that he could at least produce some wine and survive. The numbers grew to about 20, including many of the most reputed estates in Provence and the Southern Rhône Valley.

The result, or at least one of them since he also made a couple of other wines thanks to this solidarity operation, is shown above. It is called Red no 2, Grêle 2012 (grêle being French for hail). It cannot bear the name of his estate as the grapes did not come from there. And it is a Vin de la Méditerranée, a vast area covering a lot of South-Eastern France. Indeed the grapes came from estates that are up to 200 kilometers apart. And the wine? Bloody good. Very easy drinking, with lots of lively mediterranean character. An exemplary and flavour-packed « quaffing » wine that has emerged from an exemplary story that shows that some people are, well, good. And the packaging? Raimond’s graphic design has been handled for some time by a friend of his from Austria (or is it Germany ?). Anyway, I feel that this label succeeds brilliantly in conveying both the violence of the original catastrophe, and the subtle blend of all the estate names that slip into the picture like so many autographs on a rugby shirt, forming a sense of team spirit that has been his saviour.

So yes, labels can tell a story, or at least symbolize one or part of one. But you probably need the keys to the full story behind the scenes to make all the connections. The rest is about aesthetics,....just like one's taste for a wine in fact.