In truth, it’s more than just looks that matter, but the appearance of a bottle (let’s stick to bottles for the moment) of wine on the retailer’s shelf is surely an important determinant as to whether it’s given even a cursory glance.
Perusing the line up of around 17 wines Tim James and I tasted earlier this week, it yet again struck me how boring, or worse, downright ugly so many South African wine labels are (I’ll leave readers to decide which is which in the photo). The less-than-compelling aren’t restricted to any price level either; those wines cover a price range from R36 to around R130, but my concern lies at the cheaper end (though why wineries/PRs insist on sending out so many to the media at this level, I can’t imagine. Wines of a more complex nature would really give us meat to write about). Why should the less costly not also be smartly dressed? In fact there’s every good reason they should be, given there’s very little difference between wines at this level (believe me!), so I imagine sales are driven primarily on brand loyalty. How to achieve that initial one – if there’s not a word of mouth recommendation, probably the most influential sales pitch – we’re back to scouring the shelves for a bottle with label-appeal.
My default wine (two, if you count both the white and the red) at the R30-R50 level is/are The Wolftrap, now produced in awe-inspiring quantities by that innovative and reassuringly consistent winery, Boekenhoutskloof. There’s no dumbing down here, either in the wine or its smart packaging, both bottle and label; they looks very much more expensive than the wines’ incredible value (around R38 a-piece when last purchased). Wolftrap can sit on the dinner table in the best of company … and be equally happy hanging around the braai. If The Wolftrap team can do it, why not others?
I find it especially disappointing that Lanzerac, now under new ownership, hasn’t taken the opportunity to give a bright, new look to their labels. The bottle is iconic – how many lamp bases or candle holders can be found in South African households or restaurants? – it acknowledges the winery’s history and popularity with the Stellenbosch student population of the 1970s and ‘80s, hence the Alma Mater moniker. Maybe the bottle is seen as able to sell itself.
Not so the Balance range from the Worcester-based Overhex Wines International, where label and contents pull together to generate sales. Many might believe this winery is still a co-operative; in fact it is owned by ex-Free Stater, Gerhardt van der Wath and JC Martin (yes, owner with wife, Carolyn, of Creation Wines). At the presentation of their Balance range earlier this week, v d Wath explained that what one market requires from a label is different from another, and he should know; they export to 28 countries worldwide. Stylistically, the wines are fashioned for the new winedrinker; nothing too aggressive or over the top. ‘Gentle’, ‘smooth’, ‘fruity’ crop up regularly in my notes and most are, indeed, well balanced. Pick of the crop are the Winemaker’s Selection Sauvignon Blanc 2013 which has just enough liveliness with lees-enriched roundness and pure but but unshowy fruit; good value for R47. Better value still at R32 is the Best Blend Pinotage-Shiraz 2012, a light-textured wine, its 5 grams of residual sugar camouflaged by the dark soft berry, spicy flavours. Chilling won’t kill it.
But since we’re talking labels, it’s Henk the elephant, perfectly balanced on his tiny stool, which should encourage a first-time buyer. He’s eye-catching but not kitsch and perfectly illustrates what the wines are about; he could be usefully used in many ways to market the range.
How would these Balance labels fare in a design competition? This thought took me back to the days of communal and printed Grape and the label competition the editors ran back when. Just when that was, I had forgotten, until I unearthed all my old copies of the magazine; it was 13 years ago. So long ago? It seems like yesterday.
And the winner? Actually two, the pair pictured, which were part of the Savanha range, are now no longer part of the South African wine scene. Perhaps it’s time for another label competition; it could work as a wake-up call for all the ordinary and worse out there.