Contextual Wine Labeling

I wanted to bring this issue out of the comments section because I think it is an interesting issue. A reader commented earlier that this statement on the back of a bottle of California Malbec is probably done to try to piggyback on the Bordeaux’s well deserved quality reputation: :"Malbec is one of the five red varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux wines."

In fact the commenter said this:

"So, why then does the producer want to put it on the label (or back such)?

My guess is that the producer wants to benefit from the high
reputation that Bordeaux wines have (deservedluy or undeservedly, as
you wish). To put it in a different way – the producer wants to get a
free ride on Bordeaux reputation. A wimp producer who cannot stand up
for what he does himself perhaps?

I think that it is poor judgement and poor marketing from that
producer and I cannot say that I feel much pity for him – or the label

This is not an unreasonable interpretation or evaluation. Let’s face it, marketers have been known to copy or otherwise use whatever works and try to get any upper hand so they can to sell their particular product. And this tendency applies to wine too. Whyhy not try to piggy back where you can if the down side is minimal. This, however, is exactly the kind of "unfair use" that the EU has been complaining about for years when it comes to American marketers whether we are usurping words such as Roquefort or Chablis. It’s not fair. It’s dishonest and it’s the kind of thing that has great potential to reduce the value of the place-name in question.

So, it’s far from out of the realm of possibility that the winemaker that made reference to Bordeaux on the back of their Malbec label was just trying to benefit off the long, hard work done by others in Bordeaux over the centuries.

But there’s also another possibility.

Malbec is hardly a well known grape in the United States. It would make sense to use the back label to educate the buyer on what they are holding in their hands so the negative aspect of them likely not knowing anything about this type of wine is reduced. So, how does one describe Malbec?

Well, you can say it is red. You could also describe the variety’s characteristics. You might also give some historical context to the wine. If you tried to offer this kind of context, what would you do. I don’t think it’s possible to do this without referencing the fact that Malbec is one of the five red grapes that have for decades been those designated for use in Bordeaux. It would be the same way I’d give context to Petit Verdot or Cabernet Franc. All three fall into the same general "Unknown" category as Malbec.

Is this either an intended or unintended case of the winemaker suggesting the wine in the bottle will TASTE LIKE Bordeaux? 

What about the winemaker who on their back label writes, "there is a line of latitude that runs across the globe which seems be the line of wine; the location on the globe where wine grapes thrive. Surrounding and right on the 45th degree of latitude you will find the winemaking regions of Germany, France, Italy, Spain and, right smack in the middle of the line, our little vineyard here in Oregon."

It seems to me that in the case of this back label the winery IS playing on the reputation of these other, famed winemakng countries they mention. However, the nugget of information they offer is also pretty compelling. It’s exactly the kind of thing a wine lover would want to know. It makes a connection between this wine and the broader world of wine on a geographic scale. It puts the winery in some context. It seems entirely legitimate.

In the same way, our client’s vague reference to Bordeaux, which doesn’t even have the same direct connotations to quality that our imaginary Oregon winery does, puts Malbec in context for the wine buyer.

But there is something else to this logic.What if our client wrote of Malbec on the back label: "Malbec is a red grape that can be found in a variety of regions where grapes are grown, including Sri Lanka."  Since Sri Lanka is not known for making wine, let alone wine from Malbec, should this also be considered out of bounds for a marketer? It doesn’t seem so bad when there is no cemented history of the grape being planted in a particular region but nonetheless has once been planted there.

I think the reference to Bordeaux on the Malbec’s back label is entirely legitimate. Clearly it would not be legitimate for a winery to put "Bordeaux" on their label, suggesting what is in the bottle is in fact from Bordeaux. The front label, however, clearly states where the grapes were grown and it says on the back label where the wine was bottled.

So while it is possible to write a back label that would clearly be a case of trying to ride on another region’s reputation, I think we need to also entertain an alternate possibility. I think it’s entirely legitimate and good marketing to reference another region when attempting, in particular circumstances, to give context to a product that might not otherwise have much of a context at all.

12 Responses

  1. Mark - March 14, 2007

    One can see both sides of the argument – a little bit of piggyback marketing on another region’s reputation blended with a handy bit of context for potential purchasers on a lesser-known variety of grape.
    However, the most misleading thing about the statement: “Malbec is one of the five red varieties traditionally used in Bordeaux wines” is the fact that very, very little Malbec is actually still grown in and around Bordeaux! There’s some in Fronsac and a little around St-Emilion but you’d be hard-pressed to find any at all on the Left Bank (there’s none found, for instance, in any of the 1st Growths, nor Ausone, Cheval Blanc, Petrus…) so a drinker buying the Malbec under the impression that they’re getting a taste of Bordeaux is being deluded.

  2. Randy - March 14, 2007

    I think the phrase “traditionally used in Bordeaux wines” doesn’t imply that Malbec is currently planted in the Bordeaux region, but as Tom pointed out, it is one of the varieties historically associated with the region.
    It doesn’t make the phrase any less valid just because you can’t find Malbec planted in Bordeaux today.

  3. Mark - March 14, 2007

    See your point Randy, but that does then beg the question of why bother mentioning it at all?

  4. Mike Duffy - March 14, 2007

    My back label:
    “Malbec is a grape you’ve probably never heard of. Who cares? Buy this bottle and see if you like it. That’s really the only way to know if our Malbec is for you.
    We think it tastes like [insert non-enophile description here] and goes well with [insert non-gourmet food here]. Try it with food that is [insert description here, e.g. spicy] and see how you like it.”
    A back label is a chance to engage the reader in your wine. The assumption in the original label is that someone knows what Bordeaux wine is like. That may be a bad assumption.
    Do you read the back label before you buy? What is more compelling? An association with Bordeaux, or a not-too-technical description of how the wine might taste or what it pairs with.
    The basic question is, “What is the purpose of a back label?”

  5. Art Rose - March 14, 2007

    i agree with the first post; there is so little malbec planted in Bordeaux that the backlabel statement is both misleading and useless.

  6. Jerry Murray - March 14, 2007

    What know one has really tackled is that the statement on the label was true! I will not fault the producer for trying to provide a context to put the wine in or provide an educational nugget of information for curious consumers. One of the above comments suggests using the run of the mill tasting notes. What kind of useful information is available with tasting notes or what kind of food it might go with? How many wines have ‘fresh berries’, ‘plums’, ‘earth’ or are considered to go well with ‘lamb’ or ‘grilled salmon’. These back labels tell me nothing about the wine. I can glean no information from this that would indicate if I might like the wine. Telling me is it made from a varietal indigenous to some region at least points me in the direction of what style the wine might be made in. This is useful content.

  7. Randy - March 14, 2007

    I was surfing the Wine Library TV site today, and in one of his recent video podcasts, Gary reviewed a recent, actual Bordeaux blend, and mentioned that it contained Malbec (albeit a small percentage). So I would suggest that we put to bed the contention that Malbec is not a Bordeaux variety.

  8. Mark - March 15, 2007

    “So I would suggest that we put to bed the contention that Malbec is not a Bordeaux variety.”
    Randy – nobody has said that! All we have said is that Malbec, as a grape variety, is used in very, very few Bordeaux wines these days and, as you point out, when it is, it’s used in a very small percentage (typically around 5% of the blend). All we’ve said, therefore, is that to position a wine made from 100% Malbec as possibly relating to Bordeaux wines is misleading.

  9. Erin - March 15, 2007

    I have to agree, while I can see where both sides are coming from, if there is so little produced in the region that it isn’t of note to anyone, why then would it be important to even put it on a label?

  10. Randy - March 15, 2007

    And to think, I’m really not arguing just for the sake of argument (or am I?)…
    I still find myself wanting to defend this producer for mentioning Bordeaux on the label. If this were a bottle of Cab Franc, or Petit Verdot, would people object as strongly? Using that same argument, none of those varieties should mention Bordeaux either, because they are primarily blending grapes as well.
    So, to sum up for me, I think the Bordeaux region benefits from a mention on the label, though if the wine sucks or (even better) it turns out as a fruit bomb, it really doesn’t really reflect well on the region, does it?
    Shrug and move on…

  11. Daniel Lopez Roca - March 19, 2007

    As my friend Ricardo Santos (a well known Malbec producer) says in a joking manner, “Malbec is an Argentinean variety that was once cultivated without success in France,”
    Regards from Mendoza

  12. Peter F May - April 3, 2007

    I think the issue behind this is the harmonisation of of wine labels around the world that will mean that a label that is legal in one country will be accepted as legal without any changes in other countries. Currently wineries need to produce sifferent labels for each export market.
    While it is fact that Malbec is an allowed component of red Bordeaux (although in practise not that common and only a small percentage is used in wines that do use it), EU law doesn’t allow the usage of the word Bordeaux on a bottle that is not from there, and thus I suggest the background to the situation.
    To be frank — its trying to big up the wine by making the connection to Bordeaux, it’s unnecessary really and anyone that buys a Malbec expecting it to taste like a Bordeaux is going to be disappointed, and begs the question — then why not buy a Bordeaux. The label would be more honest to say it is tryingto emulate the great wines of Argentina 🙂

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