Don’t judge a wine by its label

Sommelier Dominic Buckwell reads between the lines

Artelium wine.
Artelium wine labels designed by sculptor Will Nash.

Do you ever find yourself staring along identikit aisles of shop shelves stacked with similar-looking wines, wondering which to choose? Unless you know the wine, having previously tried it, it’s difficult to judge how it will taste. I’m here to take you behind the label, helping you to pick up on cues and use X-ray vision to see through some of the obfuscation gummed across the glass.

Accumulating knowledge about wine from all around the globe is very challenging; even with a lifetime of study it’s impossible to cover more than a relatively small part of what is available. Basic guidance on interpreting wine labels tends to focus on the differences between ‘old world’ (mainland European countries, which may only give the specific place name, for which some prior knowledge is required to deduce the grape variety and style of wine), and ‘new world’ (countries where wine was brought through colonialization, whose labels tend to be more transparent and consistent as to variety, and styles/vintages).

Besides any understanding from these clues, and the percentage level of alcohol (which stay within a relatively narrow band of 10-15% and may not be very accurate anyway) there is often little else to go on. Some producers provide a narrative on the back label, either by way of an enticing description of the wine or with technical information such as how and for how long it is aged. But such details are niche and subjective. So what can we go on to judge the taste?

Modern labelling trends

Let’s start with examples from two major Sussex producers who were pioneers of the English Sparkling Wine movement (see ROSA #5): Nyetimber and Ridgeview. Their branding has evolved over 25 years or so. Initially using white and gilt metal colours, serif lettering and shield shape labels, recent iterations adopt Art Deco references, with san serif fonts on a clean white background, conveying a modern impression. Their wines are refreshing, citrus-stone-fruit driven, with a light biscuit, brioche flavour that develops with longer lees and bottle ageing.

In the last two decades, most English sparkling wine labels have continued in this image. Founded in 2006 by the Goring family, Wiston adopted a label featuring architectural details from plasterwork in their Grade I-listed heritage property. The flagship rosé sparkling wine from Coolhurst near Horsham is named ‘Lady Elizabeth’ after the aristocrat who founded the estate. Similar devices appear on the labels of many English home county producers: Jenkyn Place in Hampshire and Squerryes in Kent feature family crests and their associated stately homes. All of these signal class status, signposting to the consumer that ‘although from England, we are very like Champagne’.

Alexandra Loske in ROSA #7 gives some great insight and history on the colour white. For wine labels it is a proxy for tradition as much as purity: classic French wine labels tend to depict a château on a white background –think of the classified clarets Lafit and Latour, inter alia. For Sussex, however, the colour white epitomises South Downs chalk – the same strata of cretaceous limestone connecting us geologically with the Champagne region, giving a fine flinty character. White also alludes to clean crisp wines with high acidity, sometimes denoting a ‘Blanc de Blanc’ cuvée made purely from Chardonnay or other white grapes and consistent with Champagne.

Rathfinny, in Alfriston, is among the grandest wine estates in Sussex in terms of ambition and scale, but has no landmark property to use on its label. The label’s top edge cleverly incorporates a silhouette of the Seven Sisters cliffs, and features a crest of six grapes arranged like martlets on the county flag. Use of Gill Sans font for lettering also connects with the Sussex Arts and Crafts movement via the disgraced Ditchling-based artist Eric Gill.

Other producers, such as Off The Line and Dillons, use illustrations of local flora and fauna to allude to the Sussex landscape, and cite hedgerow fruit flavours present in their wines. A different approach, taken by Lewes-based artist Galia Pike, whose husband Adrian is winemaker for Westwell Wines, is to illustrate with microscopic images of organic matter related to the wine, such as fossilised coccoliths from which chalk is composed, or lignified plant cells that make up grapevine wood. Galia’s labels are among the most striking in the industry, and reflect Westwell’s originality in small batch and experimental wine making, such as skin-fermented orange wine, which I regard as ‘non-binary’, being neither red nor white.

Fine art, fine wine

The images used and overall design are obviously intended to position the wine on the market at a certain price point. Since the end of WW2, Mouton Rothschild has commissioned a different artist for every vintage to illustrate the label. Other iconic producers, such as Sin Qua Non in California, and some Italian estates, have followed suit, drawing on the prestige and luxury of fine art to confer by association a high level of style and quality upon the wine brand.

Artelium in Streat near Ditchling have taken this path, combining a cellar door operation with an exhibition space, as well as providing a permanent home for the Skelton Workshops collective of stone carvers. Each year a different local artist is commissioned to design their ‘Artefact’ series wine labels, most recently Will Nash, with previous vintages by Judith Alder and Sarah Emily Porter. The colours used by the artists for these series of wines are used to denote flavours of the grape varieties for each cuvée.

Nutbourne Vineyard near Storrington produce a range of still and sparkling wines. My favourite is a still white made from a blend of their oldest vines called Sussex Reserve. Owned by the Gladwin family, they run a catering company and several restaurants in London; Bridget Gladwin is herself an artist whose work is used on their labels.

Artelium wine labels designed by sculptor Will Nash.

Location, location, location

The producer’s name should at least tell you where and by whom the grapes are grown. Except often it doesn’t. Some large producers (Ridgeview included) buy in grapes from other counties, so you may not be drinking what you think you are. The appellation rules established for England in 2011 allow for this: Chapel Down of Kent and Camel Valley in Cornwall use more fruit from contract growers in Essex than from their own vineyards. Many wines from Bolney Estate are not actually grown on the estate, being purchased from other vineyards: since 2022 it has not been in Sussex ownership, but is part of Henkell & Co. Sektkellerei KG, a German drinks conglomerate with a €2bn turnover.

Reputable producers like Gusbourne and Nyetimber only use their own fruit, but with vineyards across Hampshire, Sussex and Kent they are not exclusively Sussex grown. This disqualifies their wines from being eligible to use the Sussex appellation.

Smaller producers and those who are beginning to get established may build up their business by buying in unlabelled finished wine, already bottled, from existing producers’ surplus: Dermot Sugrue (previously of Wiston) had a roaring trade in selling sparkling wines to new producers who put them out under their label, before their own vines were mature enough. The only clue to this will be the address of the bottler in tiny letters on the back label, which people rarely look at.

It’s a gas, gas, gas!

Although sparkling wine in England is usually made like Champagne it does not have to be. It could be made like Prosecco (see Rosa #6) or may even be a technique the French call ‘pompe bicyclette’ – effectively an industrial soda stream injecting carbon dioxide into a still base wine. If this is the means by which the wine has been made fizzy, rules require the term ‘carbonation’ or ‘aeration’ to be stated on the front label. But beware! Chapel Down produce a £20 wine now called A Touch of Sparkle, made by carbonation that does not comply with this rule and is out there potentially leading buyers into thinking they’re buying traditional-method sparkling wine from Kent, whereas in fact it is made by streaming CO2 from a cylinder after the wine has been made. Technically, this is not a fake wine, but it feels and tastes different to sparkling wine made by the gas dissolved from its own fermentation.

Rebranded bargains

Nyetimber retails for around £40 per bottle, but, if one knows what to look for, a couple of supermarkets sell it under their own label. Wine is sometimes declassified so as not to undermine the vineyard’s main brand. This might be because it is sold in supermarkets that they may not want to be associated with, or it could be they simply have so much volume in a bumper vintage that they do not want to flood the market. A savvy buyer can decode the back label. This is the case with Sainsbury’s Ellercombe English sparkling wine as well as Morrison’s English Sparkling Wine. The name on the label is Rolling Green Hills, which Companies House reveals is owned and controlled by the same person as Nyetimber.

Make it personal

Ultimately, wine labels are no more accurate than a book cover: they may be a reflection of how the producer wants to be seen, or a sales pitch to the consumers they hope to attract, rather than a statement of how the wine in the bottle they adorn is likely to taste. Ideally, you should buy wine from a trusted merchant or an advisor who knows what you like: Hennings in Pulborough, Symposium in Lewes, Beaucatcher in Rye, South Downs Cellars or Butlers of Brighton, for example. Or, with almost 100 producers based in Sussex, you can of course go to your local vineyard and find out directly how the wines taste.

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