From augmented reality to provocative art, old-world and new-world wine labels alike are getting a facelift. Most winemakers do this for self-expression, even if it may mean jeopardising prices and public perception. But it’s a creative leap they’re willing to take.
At his rolling vineyards in Brouilly, France, Jean-Claude Lapalu is known for his elegant natural wines – Beaujolais cuvées that burst with black cherry. The labels are humdrum: white background, serif font, and red and black text. Thirteen years after the domaine’s founding in 1996, long after Lapalu earned his reputation as a respected Beaujolais grower, this biodynamic/organic winemaker created Alma Mater, featuring wine aged in amphora (clay vessels). Boasting an even more balanced palate than his usual portfolio, this veritable outlier gets a label with a cool, black-marker script plus Lapalu’s initials rather than the trite display of his full name – all clear indicators of a passion project.
“The grapes may come from the same parcel, but Alma Mater has a style he wants to do and not what is expected of Beaujolais, or of him,” explains Cristobal Huneeus, co-founder of La Cabane Group in Hong Kong, which is home to quite a few of Lapalu’s vintages. “The use of more vibrant colours and fonts definitely came with the popularity of natural wines, and this signifies a growing open-mindedness in the overall wine industry.”
Sharing Huneeus’ cellar space are also biodynamic reds, whites and sparklings from the Bornard family in France’s Jura region. Philippe Bornard, the father, splashed his bottles with an orange fox beside clever names like La Chamade (a battle call that provokes soldiers to march to war) and biblical references such as L’Ivresse de Noe (“The Drunkenness of Noah”). In 2017, the business was passed down to Philippe’s son, Tony – one of the industry’s few openly gay winemakers. The bottles now feature a phallic watermark on the back.
Arguably, smaller production volumes of organic wines – Lapalu makes less than 10,000 bottles a year and 55,000 for the Bornards – allow for greater creative freedom compared to that of mainstream commercial wines, which often convey prestige and heritage with extensively detailed information, use of château or vineyard imagery, or heraldic designs against a neutral background. Though there’s no official explanation for how wine labels evolved from etchings on clay pots in ancient Egypt to these classic templates, strict labelling regulations in old-world regions certainly played a major role – and given the long history these wines have had, their labels became dogma. But as the drink’s appeal has spread to wider demographics globally, its labels have demanded a facelift.
THE CHANGING FACE OF HISTORY
In 1945, Château Mouton-Rothschild became one of the first big labels to steer off-course from traditional label designs. One of the world’s most expensive wines, it averages US$600 per bottle and fetches sky-high hammer prices for specific vintages. However, the château has also been producing a cool label every year in collaboration with a prominent contemporary artist – among the luminaries are Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Francis Bacon and David Hockney.
And these labels are known to provoke: the 1993 Château Mouton-Rothschild featuring a reclining nude by Balthus raised the ire of the US’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau – which sets the benchmark on what is accepted (or not) on a label before it enters the country. Instead of battling the bureaucracy, the part of the label where the painting was supposed to sit was left blank on all the bottles destined for the States.
Anty Fung, certified sommelier and general manager of Hong Kong wine storage facility Hip Cellar and restaurant AnOther Place, says Château Mouton-Rothchild can almost do no wrong, given the tremendous demand over supply and its resale value on the secondary market. “People who go for a Château Mouton-Rothschild know the quality and the value they’re signing up for. It’s a wine that’s sold out every year regardless of what it puts on the bottle,” she says, adding that while today’s creative ambition is mostly the domain of everyday new-world wines (priced under US$50), old-world wines are also making subtle progress in decluttering their labels. Take renowned winemaker Laurent Ponsot’s move to Star Wars-like text or the mash-up of fonts on Yann Durieux’s black bottles.
Others have simply moved the information to another dimension. Treasury Wine Estates (the Australia-based company behind numerous brands including Penfolds, Wolf Blass and Lindeman’s) is bringing its labels to life via augmented reality (AR) technology. Use your phone to scan a bottle of New Zealand’s Matua Sauvignon Blanc and a virtual iceberg – representing the drink’s unmatched freshness – unfurls in front of the bottle. Hover over The Walking Dead Cabernet Sauvignon for a zombie attack. Instead of reading about Irish poet and rebel John Boyle O’Reilly’s punishment by transportation to Australia, he’ll “emerge” from 19 Crimes’ Flagship Red to tell you himself.
And it’s not just our eyes that get a treat. Last year, Chile’s Concha Y Toro paired its Frontera wines with Spotify playlists of about 40 songs through a soundwave-shaped QR code on the label. Echoing findings by Oxford University that music can enhance wine’s flavours, Frontera Chardonnay, for instance, is best drunk when listening to pop hits such as Halsey’s “Without Me”, Imagine Dragons’ “Thunder”, Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” and more.
Brands make creative labels to stand out amongst countless competitors at retail points, both online and offline. According to the latest report by the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, more than 258 million hectolitres of wine (the equivalent of 34.4 million standard 750ml bottles) was produced worldwide last year, even amidst a global pandemic.
Unorthodox yet easy-to-comprehend labels overcome barriers not only in language, but also in jargon to attract novice drinkers. “Good, creative labels can help communicate the winemaker’s philosophy or, at the very least, make bold statements,” says Fung, albeit adding that for a seasoned wine drinker like herself, funky labels sometimes put her off. Such scepticism, says Huneeus, is enough to deter some traditional winemakers from stepping out of their comfort zone – especially ones shouldering expensive land costs. “They don’t want to jeopardise the selling of the wine if people already have an expectation of flavours and pricing,” he says.
COOL IN A CAN
An emerging category that’s all about cool and creativity is wines in cans. Admittedly an offering of convenience for beach parties rather than making good impressions with the in-laws at a fine-dining restaurant, the labels on canned wines burst with vibrant colours, patterns, graphics and bold fonts meant to capture the eyeballs of millennials. Rather than cluttering up the label, the text-heavy brand story, tasting notes, drinking temperatures and pairing options are usually inscribed on the box in which the cans are shipped, says Jason Chan, co-founder of Polywiner, an online retailer in Hong Kong for this emerging category.
Though canned wine still has its share of sceptics, its popularity is undeniable. According to data by Grand View Research, the global canned wines market is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate of 13.2% by 2028. In fact, Chan says a lot of his company’s products came from bottled versions with slight variations in label design. Its Rosé All Day from France, for instance, coats the can with a raspberry pink in place of the natural blush normally revealed through the glass bottle. Oro Bello from California, meanwhile, retains its signature raindrops and gold text on the label for easy recognition.
Advancements in food packaging technology coupled with growing enthusiasm from premium winemakers means the diversity of canned wines is expected to expand from the current whites, rosés and sparklings to include more quality reds – or even vintages. This shift is likely to be reflected in the labelling as well.
Robert Mondavi, the Napa Valley winery founded in 1966, for example, joined the canned wines market by transforming its Woodbridge Cabernet Sauvignon into a canned exclusive for NFL teams three years ago. Its packaging in royal red and serif text is more demure than that of its competitors’ usual pink florals and neon-coloured fonts – and that’s probably a smart decision, given a more mature target customer.
Today, a traditional label may point to an ingenious wine within or it may not – in the same way that ones with virtual zombies and phallic watermarks don’t necessarily proclaim inferiority. Regardless of the winemakers’ intentions, the growing popularity of cool labels perhaps underscores an evolution of the drinker. No longer do they judge a book by its cover (or in this case, label) or even the conventional benchmarks of appellations, terroirs and vintages. Instead, they appreciate their wine for what it is – and this shift in mindset is surely here to stay.