The Art of Wine Labelling

We have 30 seconds to grab your attention, give a flavour of what’s in the bottle, and let you decide whether you will like the wine before you buy it. Wine labelling is massively important, but also extremely restrictive in what can and can’t be done. That’s why as labels designers, we’re so proud when it all falls into place.

Navigating the Rules and Regulations

Labelling is a hugely complicated process. Wine labels not only hold a lot of information – crucial to understanding (or at least indicating) what is in the bottle, but they have to comply to a variety of different laws and regulations that vary from country to country around the globe. These regulations affect almost every aspect of wine production – from how and where some wines can be produced to importing and exporting wine to particular countries or regions. Some laws are designed to protect geographical regions (especially in the E.U) and how a wine can be named. Other regulations even dictate the size of the lettering that can be used for specific information on the label itself!

Parts of a Label

Through all these rules and regulations, label designers must find their way: producing labels that are informative and respect regional traditions whilst designing something that is creative, engaging and that helps establish the identity of the wine, the brand of the winery and the international awareness and reputation of the country of origin.

Appellation versus Brand: the great divide

There are two fundamental methods of presenting wine information on labels – either by its “Appellation” or by the “Brand”.

The Appellation is a legally defined and protected geographical region and is used to identify where the grapes were grown and made into wine. The use of an “Appellation” to define a wine and the information on a label is used extensively within the E.U and the wines produced can be referred to as “Old World Wines”.

Using the Appellation method, the information on the label will not describe what type of grapes were used in the making of the wine; it will purely focus on the area where the wine was produced and its quality. As a protected geographical region, any similar wine produced outside a specific Appellation (AOC) cannot be labelled as a wine from the protected AOC. For example a “Bordeaux style” wine produced in Australia is not allowed to mention Bordeaux on the label at all – even if it is an exact copy.

Black Pig

By comparison a wine labelled by its Brand will indicate what grapes have been used (Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon etc) as well as where it has been produced – it makes it very easy to understand for the consumer.

There is no restriction of having to produce particular wine in particular regions, instead the same sort of wine can be produced wherever the conditions – climate and geography – are right to grow particular grapes. This method of labelling and categorising wine is used mostly outside the E.U. The wine produced can be referred to as “New World Wines”.

Both ways of labelling have obvious advantages. The Appellation method protects traditions and particular products, which is really important to the Old World, whilst New World winemakers draw upon their customers’ imaginations to portray their product and build a brand. Labels will have names that won’t necessarily have anything to do with the region but reflect the characteristics of the wine. As an example, Steve Grimley’s Black Pig is so named due to the fact pigs are allowed to roam freely around the vineyard but it is also a big, bold name that reflects the big bold powerful Shiraz inside.

All this in a few square centimetres!


These two distinct methods of labelling influence the type of design the label tends to have. By comparison to the “New World” Black Pig above, an “Old World” Château wine from Bordeaux – stored in its iconic tall bottle shape – will invariably have a tall label to fit the bottle. It might be using a parchment paper stock with a hand-drawn picture of the Château, embellished with an old-fashioned Serif font. It might be edged with some scroll work – it is designed to reflect the traditions and history of the winery and region.

Consumers have come to expect certain types of wines from particular regions to have a particular style of wine. A recent example is a wine we introduced back in 2010 from Rioja.

The first time I looked at Zinio, the label was modern, minimal and looked as if it could have come from the New World, apart from the distinctive Rioja Appellation mark on the back label which clearly defined its pedigree. Introducing any new wine in to our portfolio can be hard and Zinio was a slow burn despite it being a very good example of a Rioja. I think it’s partially because the label didn’t translate what people were expecting from a traditional wine from Rioja.

Labels from this region invariably have dark labels with highly stylised fonts – heavy use of gold leaf (or foiling) and the whole bottle can even be wrapped in gold netting or wire. Zinio was interesting. It bucked the trend. The label designer was looking to New World design to help shake up traditional perceptions – it was also a cheaper label to produce – gold leaf is very expensive – enabling us to bring a great boutique wine at a more competitive price!

In subsequent vintages, the designer refined the brand and created a modern, elegant label, which also plays on the traditions of the labels of Rioja with the use of small amounts of silver ink.


In conclusion

I think it’s quite an exciting time for wine label designers. The New World wines have enjoyed huge success and are teaching the Old World producers a thing or two… the same producers are now starting to emulate some of the best aspects of the New World, and yet honouring and evolving traditions. New World wine makers are not just producing brand after brand – wine after wine – with their successes, as they become dominant players in the wine market, they are looking at developing a style that is Iconic for the country that produces it. Here are some wines, with what I think are some classy labels… Enjoy!

Phil Adair, Head Designer, Virgin Wines

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