Tag Archive - varietal labelling

As my Riesling gently weeps

Wine glass and guitar

Ready for musical accompaniment

Riesling. It’s like the wine world in microcosm.

Wine experts love it but cannot understand why consumers don’t go gaga over it, but ultimately this is our fault.

Consumers have heard about it, and when it is poured in their glasses really do enjoy it, but feel confused by its many styles, provenances and the ways it is presented. However, it ends up with a depressingly familiar tale, with an elegantly circular argument:

1. Wine experts wax lyrical over the amazing complexities and variety (of Riesling) …

2. Consumers hear too many conflicting messages, get confused about the overall concept and cannot internalise the information, so ignore it …

3. Wine experts decide that their favourite grape is underappreciated and decide to promote it, so … [Go To 1.]

The BIG problem is that saying “Riesling is great” is that it is a bit like saying “Guitar music is great”. Of course there is great guitar music, no-one would disagree, but if I pick some at random am I going to get Rock, Classical, Jazz, Blues, Rock & Roll, Folk, Heavy Metal, …

When complexity in wine is bad

The wine industry ignores this complication because they have lived in the world of wine for so long that they (we) see the myriad of styles as a positive feature, but for regular consumers it is a complication, a confusion, and ultimately a negative feature.

It means that the wine world sees the success of Australian Rieslings as a sign that consumers are rediscovering the grape, but they are left wondering why Germany and Alsace are still not benefitting.

The point is that the buyers of “Rock Guitar” Aussie, lime-citrus, steely, dry, crisp Riesling are not at all interested in the “Jazz Guitar” Alsatian honey-and-nuts Riesling, nor the “Classical Guitar” of German floral, citrus, mineral and high acid Riesling.

They buy Australian Riesling because Australia Rocks! and “Australia” in many cases trumps “Riesling”.

I obviously exaggerate and oversimplify, there are many styles of wine in each of these regions, but consumers don’t know this detail, so most work from limited experience and “common knowledge” models.

Common knowledge tells you that Riesling is sweet, cloying and stuff that is best left to the 1970′s.

Common knowledge may very well be wrong.

Common knowledge is VERY hard to change.

Let’s face it, for Riesling (and Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and many more, if not most, varieties) “varietal labelling” is a misleading simplification anyway. It doesn’t say anything really useful, or relevant, about what the consumer will experience from this bottle.

You cannot convince an audience that is not listening. Until the message we send resonates with the ultimate consumer, it will continue to be ignored. Wine writers need to find a way to write about Jazz Guitar for Jazz lovers, not sell the instrument to all. It means we have to understand the consumer much better, and speak to them directly, not shout and hope to be heard.

Some varieties are guitars, let’s play accordingly.

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Can you taste the difference?

Would you buy this wine? It costs £7.99


This price is WELL above the average of around £4 per bottle in this country. If you are willing to spend double that amount there are only 2 main reasons:

  1. You are a “wine connoisseur” and know what you are buying and regularly spend this much
  2. You are buying for a special occasion; a party, a gift, a really special treat

I found it on the shelves of a local shop. Barossa Shiraz is world famous. Whether you know about the red earth, the climate, the issues of water shortages or anything else at all about the region, you have probably heard of “Barossa Shiraz”.

Now, you wouldn’t expect it to be cheap – generally speaking, if you’ve heard of the region (Chablis, Rioja, Bordeaux, …) the wine isn’t cheap, but it is Australia after all, not … FRANCE, that place where all good wines are really expensive. Anyway, do the French even make Shiraz?

2006? Should be good. Not too old. Time to check out some more clues.

What about this one, at the bottom?


St. Hallett? Many will not have heard about this producer, but there is actually a name on here that can be checked out. If you know anything about Barossa then the name of St. Hallett should ring bells. Old Block? Faith Shiraz? If you search for the name you’ll find this is a top producer with a great track record.

£7.99 for one of the best known names in the region? Cool!

If I bring this home to my husband or wife, or bring it to that dinner party on Saturday, they’ll be really impressed.

But wait! What’s that? At the top?


Sainsbury’s?

You want me to spend twice the national average on a bottle of wine, and when I bring it to the dinner party, despite it being a well liked grape, despite the well known region and the world-class producer, it says “Sainsbury’s” on the front label?

Erm …

  • You could say that if I say I wouldn’t buy it I’m being snobbish.
  • You could on the other hand, argue that if I’m spending this much money, a guarantee from a trusted brand like Sainsbury’s would encourage me to try it.
  • On the other hand, with all the choices available, do I want this name on there?
  • Or, are they using their buying power to get a great deal?

There is no easy answer, but these wines run all the way up to £12.99 for an Amarone and more and I am told that they are not easy to convince customers to buy (this is from the shop floor).

I know what I think, but what do you think? Premium wines (good ones at that), at reasonable prices, but constrained by the fact that it carries a non-premium label.

Would you buy it?

Varietal labelling – some clarifications (Varietals: 3)

Peter May, of the Pinotage Club and also the author of a site and book about wine labels that is definitely worth checking out, made some comments on my pet subject which I thought I ought to post here to clarify a few points.

You can read his comments on my posts on varietal labelling here. In response, I would say:

First of all, I have nothing against listing the varietal make up of a wine. Whether this should be 85% or 100% of the wine is open for debate but it isn’t the fact that it is listed, but rather that the wine packaging focuses too heavily on this one element to speak to the consumer.

Second, with regard to the “flaw in the argument”, I would have to disagree. It is EXACTLY because Stellenbosch, Napa and Margaret River cannot be linked to one style that I argue that the old world countries SHOULD do more to focus on regions. Although this is often regarded as negative, this could be a positive thing. A (protected) regional name is unique, uncopyable, defensible. However, it must be made to be meaningful through proper quality systems and common agreement otherwise it will be eroded.

If, as many believe and you seem to agree, the right (or even best?) varieties are planted in such regions, then there is no need to change the product itself, but maybe focus on the other elements, especially communication. They may not have done it well to date, but that is not in itself a reason not to do it.

I agree that my points were made with a very “old world” view of the world, and you rightly point out that the same argument does not necessarily transfer to New World regions. However, there are many regions of the world that are trying to replicate this model, so there is a future for it. Hunter Semillon? Barossa Shiraz? These regions do try and associate style with the regional name.

Let me make it clear that I am not advocating removing the varietal information from labels. I just think that marketers should be willing to consider relegating it a little further down the order of importance. The current mantra in the industry seems to be “varietal above all else” and I’m only trying to raise a possible counter argument.

I may, of course, be totally wrong.

Isn’t that the wonderful thing about blogs?

Not Whiter than White

Interesting developments in varietal labelling and branding in recent days. (I have read about it in Harpers but for some reason it has not been posted to their site)

It appears that the EU authorities are finally catching up with the issue of the labelling of rose, or blush, wines labelled as “White X” – White Zinfandel, White Grenache, etc.

Once again this raises the question of clarity on labelling. From an EU perspective where NOTHING is allowed on the label unless it has been specifically approved, there is no such variety as “White Zinfandel” (interestingly enough there are mutations of otherwise black grapes called White Merlot and White Tempranillo) so it cannot be used on the label.

But in reality this is a classic example of where a phrase on a label has become a brand rather than a technical content description. Whatever you think of whether these should be sold as wine or alcopops, getting rid of the term “White Zinfandel” will only cause confusion for those for whom this is their only knowledge of wine.

White Zinfandel is a recognised brand/category of wine and useful beyond the description of the main variety of grape used to make it. It is all about simple, medium sweet, fruity, probably reasonably alcoholic, rosé wine.

What will the result be? Will consumers ignore the change and buy the same wine whatever it is called? Probably, but not all of them.

Will some move on to try and discover other wines (as some in the EU probably secretly hope)? I very much doubt it.

Will it simply confirm to many that wine labelling is too complicated and confusing and turn them off wine again? That is my worry.

Whilst I have every respect for those who need to enforce a level playing field and basic health and safety, I think this move is simply ridiculous and wrong.

More on varietal labelling (Varietals: 2)

A few posts ago I posted a question about how important the use of varietals on the label was. Andrew replied:

“Important. Various reasons but mainly as an indication to the novice (even the intermediate) on what to expect. A Pinot Grigio is different to a Chardonnay. Having said that how many could tell the difference between a New World Shiraz and a Cabernet Sauvignon?”

Good point. I was following a specific train of thought and ignoring some other important issues.

If a particular producer has several different wines, made from different grapes in the same region, then of course it makes sense to label them as such if only to differentiate one from another. If I happen to want to buy something from “Montana“, it matters whether I pick up a Sauvignon Blanc or a Riesling.

However, my “beef” (argument / issue / hang-up) is with the “tyranny” of varietal labelling in principle not simply as a differentiator, but as the main sales cue.

Producers from well established regions in France and other parts of Europe, are being told that one of the reasons they cannot sell their wines is that they don’t list the constituent varietals on their label.

The issue is, for example, would the label “Chenin Blanc” be any useful indicator for a novice consumer of Savennieres? Would the blend of Carignan, Mourvedre, Syrah and Grenache really enlighten a potential consumer of St. Chinian? In either case the consumers might get a shock.

What I wanted to get at is that if we restrict the entry level wine education to learning the “basic” grape varieties it is very difficult to broaden people’s horizons beyond the usual suspects. It also makes selling blends more difficult (when these might actually be more approachable for beginners).

Most importantly, it perpetuates the dominance of “New World” brands that can market whatever varieties they want or are popular. If they can extend their range to include anything the consumer might recognise, why should the consumer look to a lowly regional European producer whose local laws and limited access to vineyards only allow him or her to plant one or two?

This question is almost too broad for a blog, so I apologise for the length and the ranting tone. However, I think that if we could address this issue we would see a way for a re-energising of quality wine sales that would benefit producers and consumers alike. Wouldn’t that be worth it?

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