What’s in a label?

It’s not that easy buying a bottle of wine. You’re in the bottle store or supermarket and you’re faced with row upon row of bottles to choose from for dinner that evening. There isn’t someone there to give you a recommendation and you can’t spot any bright little stickers telling you which wines have won awards or been suggested by a wine guide. So how do you pick among the multiple brand names, grape varieties, regions, wine styles and prices from which to choose? That’s a lot of choice, we’re not talking 50/50 Heinz or All Gold Ketchup. And, particularly if you’re buying wine for a present or a dinner party, there’s more riding on your choice of wine, an element of risk, insecurity and caution – naturally you don’t want to be the person inadvertently giving your guests plonk.

Obviously you can’t just pop the cork and have a taste in the shop (not unless the store owners are very forgiving!) so the next best thing is to consult the labels on the bottle to find out more about the wine in your hand. The most essential and legally required information will be on the front; brand, grape variety and origin, vintage and alcohol content. But it’s the back label that’s intended to  tell you more than the bare essentials and give you a guide to the sensory characteristics of the wine.

There was a time when wine was only labelled with a front label giving the outline of the basics but these days a bottle without a back label seems to be ‘missing’ something – rather like going out without your trousers on.  Apart from including various legal requirements like a bar code, allergy warning and ingredients list, the point of the back label is to tell you more about the wine. And, since there’s such a plethora of choice, that seems like a good idea to help you decide what to buy. Melvyn Minnaar on Grape.com suggests that back labels are too often riddled with ‘puny’ adjectives and odes to the liquid in the bottle or the skill of the fabulous winemaker which he feels are seriously off-putting. He points the finger particularly at cliché words like delicate, crisp, delightful and lingering, and writes that not only is this pompous and pretentious but is also open to individual taste, which of course he’s totally right about.

Larry Lockshin from the University of South Australia has been studying the influence of back label text on wine choice as studies have shown that 50% of consumers read and are influenced by the back label. His research shows that for those buying wine in the lowest price bracket, information on food pairing is important. The purchaser above the minimum bracket (c.$13.99 – $19.99) values information about the winery, production methods and both simple and elaborate taste descriptions. Those consumers who are less price sensitive (around $19.99) are influenced by simple tasting notes and food pairings and those who are buying for a gift or special occasion (top price bracket of about $25.99)  value elaborate taste descriptions and history.

At Excelsior we don’t want to over-complicate things and we firmly believe that the consumer is the best judge of the taste ‘adjectives’.  We stick to a few details about the history of the winery, where the wine comes from, a little simple note on the taste and an idea of what foods to pair it with. Then we leave you in peace to enjoy it.

Sources and further reading:

 Practical Winery – Influence of the back label

 Academic Wino – What’s in a label? The Importance of Back Label Information on Wine Purchase Intention

Grape.co.za – Back labels: blurb or bumf?

Wine Pages.com – Back-label bull

New York Times.com – The Lack of Veritas in Vino

University of Adelaide – The Importance of the Information on the Back Label of a Wine Bottle on the Purchase Decision


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