Can you judge a wine by its label?

Can a label be trusted to indicate a wine's worth?
Can a label be trusted to indicate a wine's worth? Photo: James Brickwood

We've all done it. And don't try and say you haven't done it, because you have. Probably many times. I've done it on hundreds of occasions - bought a wine because I thought the bottle looked cool. Like Pat Underwood's 2016 Little Reddie which has a label based on the cover of Sonic Youth's Goo album.

I like wine and Sonic Youth and make no apologies. Heck, I'll probably fashion the empty into a vase for the kitchen.

On the flipside, I've left many bottles on the shelf because the label features a smoking frog or uses the Papyrus font loved by psychics and Avatar fans. (Restaurants using Papyrus on the menu should also be avoided)  

Does a wine label reflect the quality of booze inside the bottle though? The short answer is: sometimes.

"Avoid any wine with an Australian animal on the label," says Tim Watkins, The Sydney Morning Herald 2017 Good Food Guide Champagne Taittinger Sommelier of the Year. "I saw a pink goanna once in Lyon and had a French woman tell me how terrible Australian wine was. I said 'well, if that's all you're drinking then fair enough'."

"With classic French and Italian appellation templates, half of them appear identical until you know where to look. Years ago, if I was going to drink a wine from south Burgundy, I've already got in my head the kind of wine I'm looking at and then it's just about picking up the subtle variances."

Watkins says that at the other end of the spectrum, with the whole natural wine thing, people are chasing labels that are funky, cool and controversial. "These days a bottle can look weird and stupid but until you put it in your mouth, you've got no idea if it's any good."

All-round party wine guy and national online retailer at drnks.com, Joel Amos, believes label design does have the potential to indicate a wine's quality.

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"When you've got a really good label that appeals to you, me, a random customer on the website and a punter sitting at Embla, then the winemaker has kind of nailed it. If they have the ability to do that, you can have a bit of confidence they also have the ability to make a decent bottle of wine."

Certainly, the best wines can still have the worst labels, especially in the organic and natural world of booze. Case in point, the wild and wonderful juice of Jean-Pierre Robinot with labels that will induce a migraine if you stare too long.

So, while a label isn't always indicative of a wine's quality, it will often reflect its style. Classic French wines will have a traditional template and left-field funksters will more likely feature a design that wouldn't look out of place on a Georgia Perry brooch. (Perry actually designed images for Amos's own natural wine label, Bird and Fox.)

It's also common for cheaper, unfussy labels to be slapped on cheaper, unfussy wines.

"Even within wineries themselves sometimes, you'll see certain design concepts that denote their more entry-level product," says Watkins.

The wine and graphic design aren't necessarily awful with these entry-level offerings, but for many consumers spending less than $10 on a bottle, they don't want to be distracted by smarmy labels featuring alligators wearing hats and what have you. Whatever does the job is fine, thanks.

It's a similar story at the higher end of the market, where many labels are a straight-up affair. The more you learn about grapes and terroir, the more you'll pay attention to the words on a label rather than its graphic design. Amos believes that from a retail perspective, the power of a label's design to sell a bottle matters most for wines priced between $15 and $30.

 

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Here's a thing, though. Can a label change our perception of what's in the bottle?

"Absolutely," says Dr Alex Russell from The University of Sydney's School of Psychology, who completed his PhD in taste and smell perception and particularly how it applies to wine.

"We like to think what we taste and smell is what's going on with our taste buds and nose alone, but let's face it - we look at whatever we're eating or drinking before we put it our mouth. This can create expectations and there are many studies that show these expectations are hugely powerful in terms of our appraisal of food and drink.

"If I buy a wine because the label appeals to me, then I'm going to go into this wine with an expectation it'll taste nice. It's a bit like if you pull out a nice bottle of Grange. A lot of people are going to expect it to be the best wine they've ever tasted - even if they taste a young Grange when it's really tannic. While it's not as approachable as many other wines, people will still say it's excellent because it's what they expect."

It's a gamble, yes, but if you like the label, then go for it I say. Buy the wine. Drinking should always be about fun. The odds are slightly in your favour it'll be half-decent plonk and if it's absolute garbage, at least you have a nice vase for craspedias.

BONUS FIELD GUIDE

Play it safe and avoid all wine with labels featuring the following items or combinations thereof.

  • Pink goannas
  • The font types Comic Sans, Papyrus, Curlz, Chiller and Chopsticks
  • Holograms
  • Fuschia
  • AC/DC
  • Animals doing things, especially animals doing things wearing sunglasses
  • PowerPoint clip art
  • Wedding invitations
  • Bananas
  • Presidential candidates