Tricks of the trade

Sat, Dec 8, 2012, 00:00

With a new €1tax on every bottle of wine, you can save by spotting some of the packaging and extras that add cost but not value to wine, writes JOHN WILSON

Most of us probably take less than five minutes to decide which wine to buy for tonight’s supper. As we cannot actually taste the wine, producers rely on visual impact to sell their wares. According to the marketing companies, the size, shape and colour of the bottle, as well as the label, play a significant role in determining consumer choice.

Everyday brands such as Mateus Rosé, Black Tower, JP Chenet, and Bend in the River are instantly recognizable by the bottle shape, designed to stand out from the crowd. It is not just the cheaper wines though, in the Celtic Tiger days some were able to spy the distinctive bottle shape of Dom Perignon or the clear glass bottle of Roederer Cristal from a distance.

Spain, and Rioja in particular, traditionally encased its finest wines in a mesh of gold chicken wire. Apparently this was to prevent unscrupulous merchants sticking the labels of a quality wine onto an inferior wine, and became a symbol of quality. These days it is purely a marketing device, but I am told it still works very well.

The papal crest embossed on a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape certainly helped sales in this country for many years. The more perceptive amongst you may have noticed that some now sport an alternative crest, the result of a recent falling out among producers.

The size and weight of a bottle can vary amazingly, and heavier bottles look and feel more expensive. Many producers (in Spain and Argentina in particular, for some reason) favour big, heavy bottles for their best wines – up to 1.8 kilos. A lightweight plastic bottle may not look as good but is greener, weighing less than half of that.

Wine drinkers are not alone; apparently most of us subconsciously associate all sorts of heavier items with quality. In addition, women tend to prefer tall slim bottles, men big heavy ones. Wine capsules (the foil covering the cork) offer the producer another marketing opportunity through the colour, logo or kind of capsule used. Wax seals are traditional but are both expensive and difficult to open. Plastic capsules on the other hand are seen as cheap.

Labels are seen as the most effective way to persuade a customer to buy a wine. Larger companies spend very big sums of money creating labels that convey a subliminal message, be it traditional, with images of castles and intricate script, or cool and minimalist, appealing to the aesthete. The key is to reassure the customer that they are drinking from the right bottle.

The biggest problem designers face is the varying ways different cultures relate to images. The Chinese distrust modern labels and prefer tradition, whereas the British love quirky labels, which have not succeeded here in Ireland. The most popular worldwide appear to be “critter” labels, a phrase coined in the US following the success of the Australian Yellow Tail brand with a label featuring a kangaroo. Since then, various member of the animal kingdom have been appropriated. Critter labels are seen as approachable, fun and inexpensive and appeal to younger drinkers.

But for many wine-drinkers, the most powerful incentive to buy is the region a wine comes from. Most of us are familiar with Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne in France, Rioja in Spain, Chianti and Barolo in Italy, all regions that have spent large sums marketing their name.

The New World has been doing the same. Barossa Valley Shiraz and Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc are now well known names. The rationale is simple: large numbers of small unknown producers achieve immediate recognition by having a familiar name on the label. The problem for the buyer is that there is no guarantee that all of these producers make good wine.

My own rules for buying better value wines are as follows: avoid the best-known areas. Instead seek out neighbouring regions. Avoid any wine in a big heavy bottle, encased in chicken wire or capped with wax, all cost money and add nothing to the wine. Don’t be fooled by the label, some of the best wines come with hideous packaging.

This week, four wines from less fashionable areas. Touraine is not as famous as Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, but the wine, made from the same grape variety, can be every bit as good and considerably less expensive.


Sauvignon de Touraine 2010, Le Grand St. Vincent, 12.5%, €12.70Lightly aromatic with crisp fresh green fruits and a bone dry finish. Better than many more expensive Sancerre. Stockists: Liston’s, Camden St; Bradley’s, Cork.

Chianti Rufina 2009, Selvapiana, 13%, €16.99Elegant Sangiovese from one of the best producers in Rufina. Dark cherry fruits, good acidity and a smooth dry finish. Stockists: Red Island Wine, Skerries; Wicklow Wine Co; 64 Wine, Glasthule

Mount Bluff Brut NV, 12%, €15.99A very stylish Champagne lookalike with a fine mousse, clean apple and redcurrant fruits, given extra complexity by some yeasty toasty notes. Stockist: Marks Spencer

Bordeaux Superieur 2007, Domaine de Courteillac, 13%, €20Classic Bordeaux with refined maturing blackcurrant and blackberry fruits, a nice spiciness and a good dry finish. Stockists: Brechin and Watchhorn, D6; Donnybrook Fair

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