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Back-Label Bull

do they really tell us anything worth knowing?

by Stuart Walton

Stuart writes on issues close to his heart. His views are not necessarily those of wine-pages, but they touch on topics of interest to all wine-lovers. In this essay he considers the wine bottle label, in particular, the ubiquitous back-label. All that reliable and useful information for the consumer is a wonderful development... isn't it?

A selection of visitors' responses can be found here.

It is a brave bottle of wine that dares to go out into the world these days with its arse showing. Ever since the supermarkets (with Sainsbury's in the vanguard) started covering up such bare-cheeked effrontery with another label to match the one on the front, we have come to expect a back-label as the norm. Not only does it look as though whoever is trying to selling the wine to you has made a bit of an effort, but it seems only polite as well, since it offers the chance of telling you rather more about precisely what it is you're buying than the front label does.

Indeed, there's almost a contemporary faux pas to be made at a wine-trade tasting in twizzling round the bottle of Chassagne-Montrachet to see how long it had sat in that oak that it's now covered in, and discovering - before the diffident gaze of its producer - that its backside is bare.


The traditional French approach to labelling, a line-drawing of a gated castle beneath a name written in incontinent curlicues, is borne of equal parts mystification, indolence and hauteur. Not telling you anything about its production process has more than a whiff of the secret recipe about it. It's easier to print enough labels to see you through a decade's vintages without having to come up with something new each year, and really, those who twizzle a bottle of Chateau Latour to see what grape varieties it's made from are fit only to receive the withering disdain of Fats Waller when asked how he would define jazz. 'If you have to ask,' replied Fats, 'don't mess with it.'

  So back-labelling seemed a blow for democracy when the supermarkets began slapping their own labels on any European wines whose producers had been careless enough to let them out half-dressed. Except that, inevitably, as the retailers feel that the wine-buying public is becoming more confident and more specialised in its tastes, the information being offered is turning from succinct summaries of the winemaking process to a cascade of wine-writers' dipso-babble. My own recent favourite was the Touraine Sauvignon that invited one to discover 'a hint of white chocolate' on the palate when all it actually had to offer was unripe acids.

Then there are the food suggestions that lurch from the hopelessly broad-brush, like the Portuguese red that 'will accompany almost any fuller-flavoured dishes, for example, roasts, barbecue, cheese, pasta and vegetarian', to the pointlessly pedantic.

A Bordeaux Sauvignon claims to be 'a good match for sushi and shellfish and ideal with all types of fish in creamy sauces, Chicken Véronique or Chicken Caesar salad'. There's posh.

Translated from ze French, the producers' own attempts at label copy often, in appearing to shine a little light on their personal winemaking philosophies, end up saying absolutely nothing. On a bottle of Laroche Chardonnay, we read that 'Convinced that the best wines can only be made from grapes of the highest quality, Michel selects his grapes from the harvest each year…' Er, right. That would seem to make sense, Michel. Further down, we are promised that 'the palate is lively and clean' (as opposed to filthy-dirty and half-dead, presumably), 'deliciously quenching your thirst.'

I am surrounded as I write (it's been a bit of a weekend of delicious thirst-quenching) with empty bottles that insist they would have gone variously with 'canapés', 'appetisers', 'fish' and that old standby 'cheeses', as if all these categories of food were not each capable of throwing up a challenge that would stop the wine in question in its tracks.

There is also a bottle of Alexandre Bonnet champagne that gives its grape composition, regional derivation and the dates of its cellaring and disgorgement on the back. It is an object-lesson in informative concision to which others – if only they could shut their traps long enough – could well do to learn from.