How to Understand Wine Labels and Bottles More Easily
Myself and Jim Kelly of O’C&K were having a chat recently about wine labels and bottles. We were debating that age-old marketing vs tradition topic. We even broached the subject of different wine glasses, but more of that later.
It was because I suggested avoiding gimmicky wine labels in a recent post, How to Choose a Good Bottle of Wine, this conversation began. So, in this post, I am going to elaborate on the topic of wine labels and bottles. I will also give a breakdown of the more common bottle shapes that you are likely to come across.
Jim posited two main points of view, firstly that “People in the marketing profession consider the packing of a product to be a vital element of communication because of its visual aspect. Similarly, a wine producer uses labels and bottles to send out explicit and implicit messages to the wine drinker. This is marketing communication.”
Secondly, he maintained that “just like in any competitive industry, wine brands try to differentiate themselves by telling a story. They start this story by engaging you with their label design. Similarly, the shape of a bottle adds another element to the story as it often represents a history and tradition. Although I would suggest that even historically, bottle shapes were used for regional differentiation i.e. competitive advantage.”
I couldn’t argue with Jim’s point of view but do think that he is missing the emotional element that has prevailed since 4000 BC and the Ancient Greeks.
A Brief History of Wine Labels.
The Greeks had their own god dedicated to the vine (Dionysus). The Romans followed suit with Bacchus because wine was the nectar of the Gods, and who am I to argue with this. Anyway, let’s recap on a bit of history.
The very first labelling of wine was a winemaker’s crest stamped on a clay jar. Later when the Egyptians started using papyrus (paper) they were able to etch more details on the labels. If we fast forward to 17th Century France, a Monastery’s cellar master used parchment and string to tie bottle labels to the necks of his champagne bottles.
Wine production grew which meant that details of the wine became more important and the Lithographic printing process (started in Germany) led to the ability to mass produce labels.
Subsequently, it was the big Champagne houses that started using creative labels to distinguish their product. In the 1950’s, legislation was passed into law determining what information had to be included on a wine label (grape origin, type, vintage, alcohol, and bottle volume).
Going back to my discussion with Jim, he believes that from a design point of view, a label is intended to tell one of two stories. The first being labels that tell the story about the wine itself (its history, prestige, how it’s crafted, a work of art etc.) and the second is labelling that outlines benefits to elicit emotions from the person drinking the wine (shared pleasure, relaxation, escape etc.).
To explain his point think about the label on a bottle of Chateau Ausone, named after a famous Roman poet – described on their website as “a wine of marvellous balance, which nonchalantly defies the passage of time.” versus a label of Barefoot Wine whose website description is “Let’s get barefoot together. Life’s more fun when we’re together.” Jim makes an argument for neither – just points out that they are aimed at different audiences i.e. marketing.
I suppose my point of view is that a label and its content facilitates us wine experts to explain to a person (non-expert) just what they can expect when they taste the wine. Therefore it is a lot more than just simple marketing. I do agree with Jim however, in that the design of the label is an integral part of the story of the wine and is used to arouse an emotion.
Madeline Puckette, of Wine Folly fame, has an excellent article on How to Read a Wine Label. Have a read of it – it is self-explanatory.
A Brief History of Wine Bottles.
The first point I want to reassure the reader is that the shape of the bottle does not make a difference in terms of impacting the wine’s flavour.
In reality though, how often do you think about the shape of a bottle your wine comes in? For the casual wine drinker, not a lot, I reckon, but to the experts, the size and shape of the bottle have some importance. As mentioned earlier – the bottle shape forms an element of the wine’s story and the size can impact aging, which I’ll refer to again below.
Sommeliers et al know that there are very specific bottles for various wines which signpost their origin. In fact, some of the larger format bottles are ‘collectables’ and only available through auction houses. There are traditions, of course, e.g. Rieslings come in long-necked bottles and Chardonnays in shorter slope shoulder bottles, fat around the waist. So why the different shapes?
Well, let’s look back in time. Every aspect of the wine bottle’s journey through history has been shaped by tradition, technology and (ahem), marketing. Up to the 17th century, glass bottles were a luxury item (think embossed coat of arms) until the mid-1800s when bottles were slimmed down to aid transport, storage and decanting – mainly from France to England. Since then many other bottle shapes evolved and were used to differentiate each region’s wine.
For example, Rhine Rieslings were bottled in brown flutes, Mosel in green bottles. Burgundy has its own sloped-shoulder bottle and Chateauneuf-du-Pape its papal crown emblem embossed on the neck. The thing is – no matter how much we talk about it, people do judge wines by their packaging. Consumers will still be attracted to the shape of the bottle, the stylish label and even a plastic bull hanging from a ribbon on the bottle’s neck!
For my money, no matter what comes next, glass bottles will continue to portray a premium image for wine.
I believe that no matter what comes next, glass bottles will continue to portray a premium image for wine- James O'Connor #greenacresirl #wine
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A sample of 8 basic wine bottle shapes and other differences
Straight and tall with high shoulders, this bottle is widely used for the wine we all refer to as Bordeaux. The glass is dark green for reds, and light green or clear for whites.
The Burgundy (Bourgogne) bottle features gently sloping shoulders and a slightly wider body than the rest. Both reds and whites use a dark green coloured glass.
This olive-green bottle’s design is originally based on technical necessities as opposed to style. Its thick glass, gentle sloping shoulders and deep punt are quite essential to avoid explosions! Champagne is a carbonated or “sparkling” wine, and the pressure can get as high as 80 to 90 psi (3 times the pressure inside a typical car tyre).
Most Chianti is now bottled in standard shaped wine bottles (Bordeaux shape). Previously (and famously) it was a round body, bulged bottom, and partially covered with a close-fitting straw basket (remember all those candle holders in restaurants?).
Similar to the Bordeaux, this bottle features a straight body with high, rounded shoulders. Its most prominent attribute remains the bulged section of the neck, which prevents the sediments from being poured into the glass. The other distinctive aspect of this bottle is the use of a cork stopper, as opposed to the typical long cork.
A French wine region, recently becoming more popular. This bottle is a light green colour, with a slightly flared bottom half, while the top half features inside curved shoulders that gently blend into the long neck.
Mosel & Alsace
These bottles are tall, slim and elegant looking because of a long neck. Traditionally, wines from the Mosel (Germany) and Alsace (France) regions use it. New World winemakers tend to use this bottle for sweet wines only. In either case, I would recommend asking a shop server to explain the label.
These are similar to the Burgundy bottle, but maybe just a little thinner and taller. The neck is marginally longer, with more angular sloping shoulders. They generally are green coloured glass, primarily used for reds, while whites and roses use clear glass.
Other Bottle Differences
- Thicker Glass:
Many bottles are made with extra thick glass to keep out light for long-term aging. Also, the heavyweight makes a more substantial and durable product.
The colour of your bottle says a lot about your wine. In addition to communicating your wine’s origin and style, colour often plays a part in protecting wine from harmful UV rays.
- Size /Volume:
Wine ages better in larger bottles. The 375 ml bottle is not very good for aging wine. 750 ml is okay but the magnum (1.5 l) and larger sizes allow wines to age more gracefully.
- Large bottle names
Trying to remember what the French call their large format bottles is a quagmire. For instance, if we start with the standard-size wine bottle, at 750ml and split that in half, to 375ml, you’ll end up with a “split,” “half-bottle” or “demi.” OK? Now a magnum is 1.5 litres, or the equivalent of two bottles, and if you double that, you’d have a “double magnum,” at 3 litres. (A 3-litre bottle is also known as a “Jeroboam” in Champagne and Burgundy, but in Bordeaux, a jeroboam is 4.5 liters.) There is no need for you to remember these names, the most common one we come across is the Magnum. Here is a good visual illustration borrowed from Wine Folly.
- Why is there a Punt?
The punt is the “dimple” at the base of a wine bottle or also referred to as the lift. There are no certified explanations for it, but see my previous post, Controversial Myths, and Misconceptions in the Wine World, for my thoughts on the matter.
How to choose a good wine glass.
Again, I refer to glasses in my blog post mentioned in the last paragraph above, so have a read of that. However, if you are heading out to purchase new glasses you could follow these suggestions.
– Look at the glass against a light background – it should be clear, no hint of green (low-grade)
– Coloured stems are OK (if not unstylish) but etching and engraving are for antiques
– The lip should be extremely thin – bulbous rims depict cheap to manufacture (pub style)
– Hit the bowl with your thumb at the equator (middle bit) and listen for a bell-like tone that lingers
– Watch out for bowl-heavy glasses with a small footprint (they are prone to topple over)
Everybody will have their own ‘favourite’ glass but hopefully adhering to the above suggestions will enhance your drinking experience.
I know that wine labels and bottles are not an everyday discussion one has with friends at the bar but now that you have upped your knowledge on the topic you can bring it up! Seriously though, as I’ve often said in these blog posts – a little knowledge goes a long way when choosing a wine that you will enjoy and remember.
There are a lot of myths attached to wine and some, I guess, have a commercial purpose. However, I don’t believe that wine drinkers are fooled by any mythical stories whether real or fictitious. As long as the quality, the value and the company are good people will continue to enjoy the nectar of the gods.
The next time you are in the shop browsing your wine options – have a look at the different styles of labels and bottles, you’ll be surprised that you haven’t noticed them before. Also, if you’d like to receive future blog posts from us, directly to your email, just ‘click’ here.
We look forward to engaging with you again soon – Cheers, James.
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