Apart from their brand identities, whether these be large or small in scale, and any collective appellations that designate a place of origin for a wine, be that on the scale of a country, a region, a county or a smaller geographical entity, wine producers still have to decide what to call each of the wines that they produce. This is firstly necessitated by the need to distinguish one wine from another within the range of each producer, but also to make their wines stand out from those of similar nature or origin produced by competitors.
When looking at wines from all over the world, I have come to the conclusion that there are several quite distinct schools of thought as to the path to choose when naming a cuvée or subsidiary brand. I say subsidiary brand but there are many cases where this actually becomes the brand itself, taking precedence over the producer’s name. Two very different examples will show what I mean. Dom Perignon started its career as a subsidiary Champagne brand to Moet & Chandon, distinguishing that firm’s top level cuvée. It was given specific visual attributes, such as a shape of bottle, a name and a label that clearly set itself apart from the parent brand, but the Dom Perignon label always, until quite recently, also carried the name Moet & Chandon. A few years ago this ceased and Dom Perignon has now become a fully independent brand from the consumer’s point of view with no visible connection to the parent house which still, nevertheless, owns it.
The case of Fat Bastard wines is rather different. Made in southern France and initially for the UK market, this brand started life as a Chardonnay that was labelled for its UK importer and so as a subsidiary brand. Its huge commercial success gave it the wings to fly on its own (can you imagine a flying hippo?), and so Fat Bastard has now blossomed into a range with several varietal wines under those wings. It also kicked off the so-called « critter » (aka animal) naming and label fad that spread quite rapidly, especially in Australia.
Let’s go back to our game of happy families for naming wines.
Family number one is the grape variety. This is certainly the largest of all families world-wide. Its very size has induced the creation of many sub-categories, of which more later. When one has 20 or so different chardonnays on a shop shelf, there has to be some visual means of distinguishing one from another, especially within the range of a single producer. I will discuss these sub-groups later, as they also occur with the other major family that comes essentially from the ‘old-world », and which is place designation.
Family number two is place designation. This originated in Europe well before the introduction of official appellation systems, but it is also gaining ground now in « New World » countries. In Europe, finer wines were designated and differentiated by their places of origin long before the French appellation system for wines came into being in the 1930s. Wines from Bordeaux (even if they did not always come from Bordeaux) from Beaune (now called Burgundy) or from Champagne are obvious examples, as are Mosel, Rheingau (Hock), Tokaji, Port or Sherry. They did not bear the name of their grape variety (or varieties) since in most cases nobody knew or cared much about these back in those days. This category was reinforced and sanctified by the progressive extension of the now AOP system to much of Europe. It has become so widespread, that, just as for the grape variety family, most producers have to find subsidiary names to designate their cuvées of, say, Bordeaux, beyond the appellation name and their own brand (in that case usually, but not always, known as a « chateau »).
Family number three (or sub-family number one) I call the « terroir » family. This uses specific local geographic names, often within an official framework which an integral part of an AOP system in order to identify and name wines that come from named vineyards. There are regions, such as Burgundy, Alsace and many parts of Germany or Austria where one does not have to scratch one’s head for too long to find a name for most of one’s cuvées. The name derives directly, when appropriate, from the site name of the vineyard plot, especially when this has been enshrined in a controlled or voluntary appellation system. The German VDP Grosses Gewächs designations, coupled to the grape variety, clearly identify those particular wines and set them apart from others in a producer’s range, even if this particular example is voluntary and not part of that country’s official appellation system. The same naturally goes for Burgundies from named plots, either of village, premier cru or grand cru status. And so on for the other regions or countries that I have mentioned, to which I could add some examples from Italy, particularly in Barolo or Barbaresco, for example. This approach is also followed by producers from many other regions or countries and could be qualified as the « terroir » school, naming wines by the name of the vineyard plot from which they come, even if it rarely has the same legal framework as in the examples previously mentioned. To give just one example, in the Istrian part of Croatia, the excellent producer Kozlovic uses the single vineyard designation Santa Lucia for their top wines (Malvazia, Teran or red blends) that come from this hillside vineyard (see photo above).
The fourth family I call the « lazy » or « boring » group. This may, in some cases, have a regulatory framework but not always. If it does, as for certain Riserva designations in Italy, or indeed Reserva or Gran Reserva in Spain, I would set these apart since they have a true legally binding framework with imposed production procedures. The true « lazy » family is comprised of names such as « Tradition », « Prestige »; « Family Reserve », « Special Reserve », « Old Vines/Vieilles Vignes ». One could add to this group other and more visual designations that used to be more widespread such as « White Label », « Gold Label », Yellow Label », etc. None of these have any legal framework and may signify various and unidentified practices in terms of wine production, or simply tweaking of labels to create separations as necessitated for different sales circuits. In most cases, what they usually mean to the consumer is a higher price than the standard cuvée from that producer. I am not saying that these practices are bad, nor that the extra price is always unjustified: simply that we do not know what these terms actually signify. For example, I once encountered a young producer from Bordeaux who served me his wines at a trade tasting. The first cuvée in his range was named (like so many others there and elsewhere) « Tradition », so I asked him what he meant by this word. His answer was that it was made in stainless steel tanks. I commented that he had quite a short-term vision of the word « tradition » since his father probably never had any stainless steel tanks in his winery. Not just lazy, but also quite ignorant in a sense!
The fifth family is just that: the « Family family ». In this case cuvées are named after various ancestors, wives, (more rarely husbands, wine being male-dominant), children, etc. So we have, for example, « cuvée Theo » for some wines produced by Domaine Weinbach in honour of Theo Faller who was instrumental in developing this particular domaine in Alsace. This is far from the only producer, in Alsace or elsewhere, to utilise this approach.
The sixth family is the « techno family ». Here we find cuvées named by a number, such as the « Bin » designations in Australia (Penfolds being a major player in this family with a large number of bin numbers in their range). Others may relate to aspects of the wine-making process. Examples of such technical designations for cuvées are « oak aged », « barrel fermented » or, increasingly as fashion swings, « unoaked ». Unfiltered, biological/organic/biodynamic are other examples.
Some of these have certification procedures that can attest to their veracity. On perhaps a more basic level, this family also includes wines that provide a partial description of the taste of the wine. Some cuvées or even appellations are qualified as dry, trocken, sec tendre/off-dry, demi-sec/semi-sweet, doux/sweet. One could of course place the entire German qualitatswein mit prädikat system in this category.
The seventh family is the « Fantasy or trying-to-be-funny family ». Here we have a growing family of which I have already mentioned a sub-group that could be called the « animal farm » or « critter » family that includes such wines as Fat Bastard with, in this case a hippo as the designated animal. We find such trends in two rather different segments of the wine market: supermarkets, particularly for the « animal farm » category so that the wines stand out on a shelf both by their names and their graphics; but also in the so-called « natural » wine segment (which is by essence an unidentifiable and minority category). In the latter case we can have ironic, funny (or trying to be), or even downright vulgar expressions to designate a wine. A famous and oft-quoted example is the French « Vin de Merde » (which translates as « Shitty wine »), but there are many other examples. In most cases, to add to the visual impact of these wines that, at least when they are launched, do not come from a well-known region or producer, these names are associated with bold and striking graphics that step outside of the the usual and often over-conservative codes of wine labeling. In the case of « natural » wines, I would even say that by far the most interesting and refreshing contribution that these wines make to the wine world is their graphic creativity.
I am quite sure that you can think of some other families. Please let me know if you do…