Indie labels - Issue 163 - Magazine | Monocle
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“I was bored of advertising and wanted to create something real – with my hands, with natural materials, with soil and dirt,” says graphic designer-turned-wine-maker Jutta Ambrositsch. “In 2004 it was easy to lease a vineyard in Vienna and that was pretty much it for me.”

Learning how to make wine from scratch was tough but from an initial 800 bottles of riesling, Ambrositsch created a business that sold about 25,000 bottles last year, 80 per cent of which were exported. Her background in design helped when it came to creating a catchy label too.

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Design for the vine

1. 
Weingut Werlitsch Simplicity sells and Ewald Tscheppe’s organic wine from Styria doesn’t give much away. Every bottle bears the same monochrome logo and a few sparse, often esoteric, words denoting what’s inside. Get the picture?

2.
Cantina Giardino Stockholm-based illustrator and animator Jonas Mosesson, who has worked for Adidas, Amazon and Apple (and that’s just the As), turned his hand to labels for this Campania natural-wine producer.

3.

Quinta do Ermizio Spanish-born Jose Miguel Mendez studied in Paris before settling in London. He worked on magazine commisions for Noble Rot before creating his first label for its house white.

Ambrositsch’s success is remarkable but her story is increasingly common. Peruse the shelves of most bottle shops, independent restaurants or supermarkets and you’ll spot that the wine label, once a melange of cursive script, arcane terms and esoterica, has changed to reflect a new wave of makers and drinkers.

The €453bn global wine market remains top-heavy. Italy heads up exports; alongside France, Spain and the US, these top four producers make more than half of all plonk. But the figures don’t tell the whole truth. Some of the 9 per cent increase in revenues expected in 2024 will be the result of a thirstfor wine from smaller vineyards in less obvious places: think Thai shiraz, Japanese müller-thurgau or sparkling wines from the UK, made to rival those of Champagne.

“We’ve definitely seen a new generation of drinkers who are more accepting of who can make wine, where it can be made and how it can look,” says AJ Pawlikowski, co-founder of Amsterdam wine shop Benelux Wine Co, which he runs with his partner, Malory Lane. The pair moved to the Dutch capital from Japan in 2019 and started their shop to showcase wine made within 400km of their base. 

While Dutch wine might once have sounded like a punchline, the pair aren’t short of people to work with. “There’s a more inclusive attitude in the wine world now,” says Pawlikowski of the emerging the shop in the Dutch capital’s buzzy, cobblestoned Jordaan district. “One thing that helps them to stand out is their labels.” 

The shift in their design isn’t simply a whim or a bit of canny branding. The Old-World rules were dictated by historic wine-producing regions and were largely implemented by in-house printers and typesetters rather than dedicated designers. “There’s no common denominator when it comes to how to read a label or what should be on it,” says Swiss wine writer and critic Chandra Kurt. “That depends on where a wine comes from. We’re more regulated in Europe and in some places, you need to include the vintage, the winemaker, the region, the subregion – a lot of information. But in other places, such as the US, or countries with lots of smaller producers, you’re much freer. You can be artistic.” 

Few establishments sum up the wine label’s imaginative turn better than Shrine to the Vine, a colourful vintner that opened on Lamb’s Conduit Street in London’s Bloomsbury in 2021. Its shelves heave with quirky bottles that range from the traditional to the eye-catching. You might spot wine-maker Bruno Duchêne’s La Luna label, which looks like it was drawn with wax crayons by a child, a gold-foiled Yarra Valley riesling or Swartland red by Duncan Savage bearing the simple outline of a telegraph pole. The rule, it seems, is that there ain’t no rules. The freedom to include as much or as little information as the wine-maker fancies is being tested at both extremes. 

The shop was co-founded by Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew, the pair behind Noble Rot, a budding wine empire that started as a magazine published three times a year. It grew into two restaurants of the same name, with another expected to open this spring, as well as a wholesale wine business. The pair’s house wine, an organic vinho verde called Chin-Chin made by Quinta do Ermizio, is emblematic of the iconoclastic turn that label design has taken, depicting a devilish red dog grimacing in front of a punchy yellow background. At less than €14, the wine is affordable, unpretentious, delicious and eye-catching, thanks to the illustration by Spanish designer Jose Mendez, who came to the pair through his work for the magazine, having never designed a wine label. “It’s a great wine at the right price,” says Keeling. “But there’s something about the label and the bottle’s look and shape that caught people’s attention.” 

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Austrian upstarts

7. Kamptal Kollectiv London design studio Gunter Piekarski chose off-white paper and a simple line drawing for this bottle from Austria’s Kamptal Kollektiv.

8. Claus Preisinger This blush-coloured blaufränkisch bears a funky label with a single word, “Dope”. Its jaunty angle hints at the less-than-traditional rosé lurking within.

9. Jutta Ambrositsch Why Satellit? “It was a distant relationship in the beginning,” says Jutta Ambrositsch of her vineyard across the Danube. “It was a timid love but it grew fast.”

The more playful labels are part of a bigger movement to experiment with both what’s inside and on the outside of the bottle. “Natural wine, like craft beer before it, has made wine more accessible than ever,” says Keeling. “One of its greatest legacies – besides, obviously, improving farming – will be the accessibility. Ten years ago, friends of mine would have been put off. Now they don’t have to decide based on anything other than whether they like the vibe of the label.”

So, are there any rules of thumb that should still be adhered to? “It’s like with any other kind of beautiful object,” says Keeling, a former Sony record executive who compares creating wine-label art to designing a great record sleeve. “It’s the paper and the printing; it’s the kind of wax top; it’s the thickness of the bottle.” 

Not every new design is successful and most people in the industry still have a soft spot for classic labels. “I love traditional wine-label design,” says Ambrositsch. “A few decades ago, it was about including dozens of bone-dry messages and regional information in a harmonious, sensitive way. Today, the natural-wine sector has developed a global design language. It’s colourful, crazy, sometimes a little disrespectful, often using big and loud type. Eye-catching labels have democratised wine but also commercialised what a precious delicacy it can be.” 

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The old world

4. Billaud-Simon

The label is one thing but the bottle’s sloping shoulders and pastoral scene tell you that you’re in Burgundy. For all the information that they put on wine labels, Burgundians rarely list grapes: chardonnay if white; pinot noir if red.

5. Château Roudier

The red top, high shoulders, tinted label and cursive script suggest that we’re now in Bordeaux. Established wine regions’ labels can seem obtuse but are really about cementing an area’s prestige.

6. Viuva José Gomes

This smaller-than-usual 650ml bottle from 1969 makes the Collares wine region near Lisbon its headline. The gold foiling over that punchy red rhombus is pure mid-century magic.

Lane of Benelux Wine Co agrees, adding that anyone can make a loud label but the skilful part is in making one that matches what’s inside. “Corporate wineries can take advantage of label design,” she says. “It’s a challenge for many small wine-makers who are putting all their energy into the wine, not the label design. I’ve told customers to ignore a label if it’s not terribly beautiful. Despite that, the wine can be great, as we’ve proved in our tastings.” 

Ultimately, for a product to be credible and feel authentic, there needs to be a balance between what’s inside the bottle and how it presents itself. “Take that Hermitage there,” Keeling tells monocle, turning to point at a nearby old bottle. “This label would have been made by a printer in Burgundy who works with a lot of wine growers who come there to typeset their labels. It’s why you get a lot of crossover and there’s authenticity in that. It’s not overly designed. If it looks like it’s been done by an agency, that’s a big no-no for people who are into artisanal wine.” 

The consensus? That even after more than 30 years in the industry, wine writer Kurt can still be seduced by a clever label. “You taste first with your eye,” she says. “If nobody tells you anything, you’ll pick a bottle based on price, maybe the region and the look of the label: even if it tells you nothing about the quality of what’s inside the bottle. If I don’t know any better, I’ll choose based on the label but you can’t really trust it.” On the other hand, Kurt reminds us, great wine can often lurk behind bad branding. 

“To put it simply, a good label makes a bottle easier to sell but that doesn’t guarantee that customers will come back,” says Lane back at Benelux Wine Co with a smile. “The wine has to be good.” 

Design for the vine

1. Weingut Werlitsch Simplicity sells and Ewald Tscheppe’s organic wine from Styria doesn’t give much away. Every bottle bears the same monochrome logo and a few sparse, often esoteric, words denoting what’s inside. Get the picture? 

2. Cantina Giardino Stockholm-based illustrator and animator Jonas Mosesson, who has worked for Adidas, Amazon and Apple (and that’s just the As), turned his hand to labels for this Campania natural-wine producer.

3.Quinta do Ermizio Spanish-born Jose Miguel Mendez studied in Paris before settling in London. He worked on magazine commisions for Noble Rot before creating his first label for its house white.

The old world 

4. Billaud-Simon 

The label is one thing but the bottle’s sloping shoulders and pastoral scene tell you that you’re in Burgundy. For all the information that they put on wine labels, Burgundians rarely list grapes: chardonnay if white; pinot noir if red. 

5. Château Roudier 

The red top, high shoulders, tinted label and cursive script suggest that we’re now in Bordeaux. Established wine regions’ labels can seem obtuse but are really about cementing an area’s prestige. 

6. Viuva José Gomes 

This smaller-than-usual 650ml bottle from 1969 makes the Collares wine region near Lisbon its headline. The gold foiling over that punchy red rhombus is pure mid-century magic. 

Austrian upstarts 

7. Kamptal Kollectiv

London design studio Gunter Piekarski chose off-white paper and a simple line drawing for this bottle from Austria’s Kamptal Kollektiv. 

8. Claus Preisinger 

This blush-coloured blaufränkisch bears a funky label with a single word, “Dope”. Its jaunty angle hints at the less-than-traditional rosé lurking within. 

9. Jutta Ambrositsch 

Why Satellit? “It was a distant relationship in the beginning,” says Jutta Ambrositsch of her vineyard across the Danube. “It was a timid love but it grew fast.” 

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