Tim James: A tale of three back-labels
By Tim James, 12 December 2022
There are basically two types of back-label, leaving out aesthetic considerations (which is after all what most producers do). All of them are required to give certain facts that could be useful to the consumer of the bottle’s contents. You are enabled, for example, to register alarm if you’re in imminent danger of death from ingesting sulphites and had never come to realise that wine generally contains them. Further danger can be avoided if you take to heart the stern warning that you shouldn’t drink and walk in the road – “you could get killed”, which does indeed seem a pretty convincing reason, as long as you’re not pissed already. A touch less vital, perhaps, but with an honourable history going back to the times of hand-blown bottles and fraud, is the info that the bottle contains 750 ml (or whatever) of the stuff that you should avoid if you intend walking in the road.
More generally useful is the requirement to indicate alcohol level (or at least a number that’s pretty close to the actual) and the place of origin (useful and interesting, that is, when it’s more meaningful than Coastal Region or Western Cape). But it’s often the non-statutory info that will interest the average drinker more, telling him/her/them what the blend might be, for example, or giving some genuine background to the winemaking process or more precise origins.
Unfortunately, useful additional material – constituting my first category – is pretty rare. Far more common is the kind of guff that tells you that the grapes were grown with passion, lovingly hand-harvested at the peak of optimal ripeness; that the wine was inevitably made with equal dedication, and will go perfectly with steak, chicken, pasta and sushi.
There are also the jokey labels a minor category – though playfully tweaked barcodes are not uncommon. One such label (an image of it, to be precise) came my way recently, though I’m not quite convinced if it was ever genuinely put on a commercially released bottle of wine. Under a modest sketch and the name Onder Lemoenkop Shiraz (there’s no vintage), comes a complete tasting note:
A full bodied yet refined wine with an intense deep red colour and nose of black cherry, mint, cloves and aromatic tobacco. These elements are combined seamlessly with voluptuous velvety tannins on the palate culminating in a long, enchanting finish. And it won’t fuck up the taste of your cheeseburger.
Yes, well, it is quite funny. This label seems to have first gone the internet rounds four or five years back, eliciting some mild but appreciative chuckles from as far away as Australia and England. But I did dig up a comment that in fact the tasting note had first appeared as a joke in Playboy magazine some 30 years ago, supposedly referring to a Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine. Google reveals no winery named Lemoenkop or any other wine purporting to come from it. And although the bottom line on the label looks at first to be dutifully fulfilling statutory requirements, Hermanus is not, of course, a genuine Wine of Origin area.
So, probably simply a joke all round. It was passed on to me as coming from a winelover who’s cynical about the sort of tasting note that it sends up. In reply I sent an image of a back-label from AA Bandenhorst – a producer known for rather witty labels, though the wit usually relies more on retro imagery and reference, and the barcode nicely morphs into grass. But a while back, apparently, Adi Badenhorst received from his designer a mock up of a proposed generic back-label. As a bit of placeholder text, the designer had written (I translate from the Afrikaans):
Here will be your text for each wine
How dry and high each vineyard is
How it is watered with tears
Adi liked this summary so much that he let it stand, and there it is on every Badenhorst back-label. Nice to be so famous and successful that you can get away with this sort of thing.
My third back-label today is very different. Not a joke in sight, it’s even quite humourlessly austere (with one fatal flaw in the direction of hyperbolic nonsense). But this is the one that prompted the present train of thought. It came to my attention last week when I was having lunch with a wine-loving friend, Peter Hawker, at A Tavola in Claremont, Cape Town. A Tavola is a famously wine-serious, wine-friendly restaurant and one can often expect a few wine professionals alongside and a bit of to-and-fro of bottles. As happened on this occasion.
Peter had chosen a splendid Crystallum The Agnes Chardonnay for us (to our shame, neither of us bothered to note the vintage), so we had got something decent to offer our neighbours. In return (they were a table of four) we got a few good sips, including an Argentinian cinsault (happily a long way from your average smart Argentinian malbec), and a gorgeous Alheit Broom Ridge 2019 ex magnum (see here for name changes and other info about this chenin). There was another chenin, Lourens Family Skuinskap Steen 2021 (something to remind Melvyn Minnaar that replacing “steen” with “chenin blanc” on local labels is not as thoroughgoing a practice as he laments in a recent article).
Wow. Here’s brilliantly informative back-label info for you – comprehensive enough about the Piekenierskloof vineyard and the winemaking to make the geekiest eyes glaze over, including the info that “No enzymes, acid or fining agents added”. (There’s a discordant note that mentions that the vineyard, clearly on Tierhoek, “is passionately farmed by the Sandell Family and team” – and I doubt if owner Shelley Sandell would describe herself as a passionate farmer – but let’s forgive that.) My dining-partner was, I think, initially a little impatient with some of these claims of minimalistic winemaking, but the wine was undeniably lovely and he was won over. I had to agree with his judgement: “I’m so pleased the winemaker didn’t do all of those things!”
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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