Wine Label Design Throughout Time
From Antiquity to Today
Throughout history, wine label design largely evolved because of the wide variety of grapes, and types of wines that can be made from these grapes. This diversity occurs due to the many different regions where grapes can be cultivated, and the different characteristics the wines made from these grapes can have depending on their origin.
As time went by, certain regions started becoming more prestigious than others when it came to wine production. It became imperative to find a way to somehow point out these important aspects about the wine – a need to communicate to the consumers what made a wine more special or premium than the wine from a competitor or from another region.
The oldest evidence of wine production dates from between 8000 B.C. and 4100 B.C., and includes an ancient winery site in Armenia, grape residue found in clay jars in Georgia, and signs of grape domestication in eastern Turkey. The prehistoric people who made the first wines were believed to be of the Shulaveri-Shomu culture. They were known for their use of obsidian tools, cattle and pig farming, and most importantly, grape production.
From Caucasus, wine grapes have followed human civilization as it expanded around the Mediterranean. Civilizations like the Phoenicians and Greeks were greatly responsible for spreading wine and its popularity throughout Western Europe due to their maritime expansion.
Wine and its Labels in Ancient Civilizations
The History of wine in western culture leads our imagination back to Ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that wine was a gift from the gods, the precious nectar that they, mere mortals, were chosen to receive.
In many of the ancient civilizations that revered wine, they attributed it to gods, deities and other mystical entities, or practiced rituals where the use or consumption of wine was mandatory. The Greeks worshipped Dionysus, and the ancient Egyptians buried their pharaohs with wines from the best vintages.
Evidence dating back to 1352 BC from Egypt’s King Tut burial site indicates that the ancient Egyptians were the first who labeled their wines, detailing vintage, region or vineyard, and winemaker – similar to modern wine labels. All this information was etched onto pieces of papyrus.
Despite Egyptians being the pioneers in detailed wine labeling, it was in the Persian Empire that labeling wine became a necessity, because of the many varieties of wines available and how prized they were in this civilization.
The Invention of Mass Printed Labels
By the end of the 17th century, in a small Benedictine monastery in France, the cellar master Pierre Perignon started using small pieces of parchment paper tied with string around the necks of the bottles to identify his most esteemed champagne bottles.
During the 18th century, more efficient methods were introduced in which labels were designed on stone, and ink was then applied on the stone and a roller transferred it to paper. By the end of the century, Czechoslovakian Alois Senefelder invented lithography. Lithography allowed wine producers to print wine labels in mass quantities. With the introduction of lithography most wine producers preferred wine labels in a rectangular shape that had room for more information about the wine.
During the Renaissance, the virtues of several wine regions were becoming more prominent and appreciated by the increasingly sophisticated wine drinkers. By the 18th century, the wine trade soared, especially in France, where Bordeaux became the most notorious producer of fine wines. The development of distinctive types of wine grapes led to the production of regional wines with unique, easily recognizable characteristics.
As winemakers were taking more pride in the quality of their wines, creating the perfect custom label that exhibited all those qualities and the exclusivity of their wines quickly became a priority. Elaborate designs and especially color became prevalent to serve that purpose.
The Growing Necessity of Branding in the Wine Industry
With the expansion of the glass bottle industry, the increase in variety of wines produced and the need to distribute them eventually made labeling every wine bottle an absolute necessity.
The first paper wine labels were made in Germany around the 19th century and were a bit generic. They were printed on white paper rectangles in either Gothic or Bodoni font and only listed the kind of wine that was in that bottle. Sometimes, the merchants would list the name of the wine and the vintage year.
Around that same time in France, Champagne labels with gold, silver, bronze, blue and other colors were being made by the great Champagne houses to make their products stand out.
As time went by, the labels started being used to boast the qualities of the wine inside the bottle, and it featured everything from honorable mentions to medals and trophies the wine previously conquered.
How the Modern Wine Label came to be
It was in Italy that wine labels started acquiring distinct characteristics. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the wine labels featured symbols or illustrations that represented the age they were designed in, such as family crests, landscapes, portraits or family medallions from the individual wine families of Italy.
This tradition kept going until 1950, when legislation was passed that made it mandatory for wine labels to contain the following information regarding the wine: where it was bottled, who bottled it, type of grape, origin of the grape, vintage, alcohol content and bottle volume.
Today, wine labels still encompass all the values of their past but have also become works of art and marketing materials.