Explanation of German Wine Labels
The paper label, adhering to the bottle, is a comparatively recent introduction to the world of drink. Except for the most famous wines of all, which are usually labelled at the estates making them, the bulk of wines shipped before 1914 to the U.K. Would probably be bottled either by the merchant selling them, or by the shipper, who would put on his own labels only when the customer required the wine from stock. But frequently a consignment of wine would simply be bottled and remain unlabelled, the bin label of the supplier and the purchaser being the only means of identification. Again, except for the most famous estates, wines tended to be sold far more by the generic names, or simply the names of their regions. This is why decanter labels made prior to the present day so seldom bear names of specific wines but only types of wine.
Labels are subject to control and it is generally true to say that the more famous the wine, the stricter the regulations governing its label. What is allowed to be stated on the label and what must be stated are both subject to the various local and national (and, now, international) codes governing such matters. For example, with wines bottled in France, no implication may be made via the name that a wine comes from an individual estate if it does not, and for certain export markets the fluid content of the bottle must be stated. The size of lettering, as well as wording, is also in some instances subject to regulations and, if the actual source of supply of a wine is not stated plainly, there is usually a reference number by which it can be identified. U.K. Regulations governing wines bottled in Britain are not yet as strict but are becoming more rigid. The size and positioning of labels is also, in many instances, controlled.
Generally, the label of an estate-bottled wine and that of one bottled by a shipper somewhere other than at the estate, are markedly different; the use of different colours and possibly different designs makes the distinction plain. But sometimes, as a mark of confidence in the shipper, an estate or a big winery will allow the use of their own labels by the shipper, although the words ‘estate-bottled’ or a similar phrase obviously cannot be used, and there will usually be the shipper’s name somewhere, either on the bottom of the label or on a separate label, such as a strip label. The size and content of all these separate labels is also usually subject to local or national regulations, such as the strip seal of paper that goes over the top of the capsule of a vinho verde; but tags, attached to the neck of a bottle and falling free, tend to be more in the nature of trimmings to enhance the sales appeal of the bottle, and they are not so rigidly controlled.
The design of a label, obviously, is something for the individual firm or estate to decide, and there are many theories about this. Mouton Rothschild, in recent years, has employed a succession of famous artists to design its labels; Chateau Lafite has never changed its original design at all. Some properties have tried to update their labels, occasionally with disastrously vulgar results, in attempts to appeal to the varied winedrinking public and especially the North American market. Others have attempted to be archaic rather than historic in their presentations of bottles. But in general terms it may be stated that the finer wines, in all price ranges, high and low. Tend to be labelled and their bottles presented with the good taste and discretion, plus practicability, that usually indicate a quality product. Sometimes when a property changes hands, the new owners have the label redesigned; although as a design the new version may be more attractive and conspicuous, it is not necessarily more successful in attracting sales or appealing to discriminating wine lovers. The redesigned Leoville-Barton label (done at the wish of the U.S. Firm of Seagram) is an example of this. The very lavish label, elaborate dressing of the bottle (and outlandish bottle shapes as well) very often indicate that the wine inside may not be its own best advocate. As it is obvious that the cost of all the strident presentations has to come from somewhere, it is usually the quality of the wine that suffers.
The terms ‘strip label’, ‘back label’ and ‘neck label’ are self-explanatory; but sometimes there is confusion between the neck label and the capsule, although these are two separate things. The vintage of a wine may be on the body label, or the neck label, or on a separate ‘vintage label’.