What's wrong with old wine labels?

Two people pointing to wine labels

As anyone who deals with the familiar names in fine wine can attest, there has been a trend for some time now for producers in premium fine wine regions — Bordeaux, Champagne and so on — to redesign or refresh their labelling to appear more contemporary.

This bothers me, because it is almost always the case that I prefer the old design. For a while I thought this was just a private penchant for traditional paper stock, gothic scripts and serif fonts, but in conversation with colleagues in the industry, it has become clear that many of us prefer the old labels to the new ones.

A recent discussion on Instagram illustrated this rather neatly, with a wine critic professing his love of “characterful old Pomerol labels” in a defiantly baroque style, with the comments on his post supporting the view that the old labels were better than the new ones. It seems customers often agreed. In independent retail, presentation is important, especially for high-value wines. It is clear that line drawings of châteaux, traditional scripts, laid paper and as many fonts as you can put on the label appeal to buyers of traditional fine wines, who want familiarity, not novelty. A good, solid, classic label can often help to seal the deal between two £50 wines from, say, St-Émilion, all else being equal.

But if label redesigns are not fulfilling the needs of many wine connoisseurs, retailers or consumers — their target markets — who is signing off on these, and on what criteria? I suspect it’s largely driven internally by a feeling that wineries need to keep up with the times, which is rather ironic on several levels. Brand refreshes can also be the marker of a new generation or leadership team taking the reins at an estate and wanting to signal a change of direction.

Perhaps it is felt that sans serif fonts will convert Gen Z to claret. Yet it doesn’t feel like many of these redesigns really connect with the core brand and customer base. Even worse, by trying to look more like your competition, you look less distinctively yourself. Although these elaborate labels might offend the sensibilities of graphic designers, they are increasingly distinctive in a homogenising market.

Let’s be clear, however, that if you don’t have an established identity as a fine wine region, then it is a very good idea to carve one out that is distinct and different from existing regions. In modern terms, Provence rosé has struck a clear visual identity that is distinctive and now much-imitated, and natural wines, with their crown caps, funky labels and clear glass, are also excellent examples of innovation, both in labelling and packaging more widely.

Hipster wine labels work for hipster wines. But it is a testament to either the faith in heritage, or an astute understanding of their commercial power, that winery brands as diverse as DRC, Dom Perignon and López de Heredia continue to proudly (and wisely) flaunt their heritage credentials on their labels.

Other wineries in traditional fine wine regions should take note and resist the timid label refreshes that don’t appeal to their existing market and which are unlikely, being so timid, to capture the imagination of any new ones.

It might be worth looking back through the archives of their old labels and thinking about reissuing them. After all, it is going to take more than a font refresh and some new paper stock to change the perceptions of such establishment wines in new markets. So why not lean in?

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