At the symbolic Judgement of Paris in 1976, two Californian wines came top in a high-profile blind taste test ahead of some of the finest Bordeaux grand crus. Since then, the world of wine has become truly internationalised and the wine codes previously established by the biggest French designations have undergone significant change.
Since 2009, the annual wine market report, "Le vin et ses marchés", has included a semiotic study by the head of the European Centre for Packaging, François Bobrie, analysing the evolution of wine codes under the influence of globalisation. Based on Wine Spectator magazine's annual "TOP 100" list, which ranks 100 bottles of wine from all over the world, the sample used for this study represents both a certain universality as well as the desire to capture new marketing trends. According to the study, the narrative of high-end wine packaging has its own visual and textual structure, with two distinct "narrative characteristics".
The first increases the value to the consumer through the self-glorification which sits at the heart of the narrative, either as much as or even more than the wine itself. Known as the "Jupiterian narrative", it corresponds to the traditional and statutory information (producer, region, vineyard, production technique, grape variety, etc.) used and codified by the major French wine-growing regions (Bordeaux, Bourgogne, Rhône).
In contrast, the second conveys to the consumer the sensations and emotions experienced when drinking the wine. Known as the "Bacchanalian narrative", it corresponds to more emotional and hedonistic images (experiences to enjoy, images evoking the perfect life, etc.). With this narrative, the strict codifications traditionally used in the wine industry are abandoned in favour of the more dynamic and on-trend marketing techniques used in other market sectors.
In the famous Wine Spectator TOP 100, the majority of wines still follow Jupiterian codes, but this has steadily decreased since the end of the 2000s in favour of Bacchanalian codes. Is this a trend which will continue to develop and establish itself in the years to come?
It's true that Bacchus has strong appeal. The son of Jupiter, he opposed the hegemonic authority of his father to create a hedonistic life philosophy centred around personal and immediate pleasure, shared with only a circle of his close friends. In a sense Bacchus is a modern-day hero and the perfect embodiment of the "me, myself and I" attitude in today's society which is becoming more and more egocentric.
The new players in the wine industry understand this and haven't hesitated to make use of the emotional codes of the "Bacchanalian narrative" to seduce consumers. You only have to cast your eye over the shelves at your local wine merchant or supermarket to see that bottles of wine coming from all four corners of the globe are more visual, colourful and personalised.
This visible diversification in packaging reflects a new era for the international wine market. We have gone from the global standardisation supported by the famous American critic, Robert Parker, when French wine codes, particularly those of Bordeaux wines, spread throughout the industry and became universal (international grape varieties, the art of blending, the symbolism of the Château, specific bottle shapes), to a place in time today characterised by local reappropriation of more individual codes, both in terms of the content and the container itself. This trend initially came from the desire to rediscover the native grape varieties in each production region and has gone on to influence all aspects today, from the size of the vine and the wine-making process itself, to the design and narrative of the bottles.
Take renowned Italian producer, Gianfranco Bisol, as an example. At the Venissa vineyard near the legendary city of Venice, he reintroduced a grape variety called Dorona that is native to the region and was previously thought to be extinct. To ensure the bottle itself was as unique as the nectar it contained, he called on some local artisans. Created by the designer, Giovanni Moretti, the bottles are decorated with gold leaf, like nearby Saint Mark's Basilica, and are made from Murano glass struck with a vine leaf and numbered so that each one is unique in its own right.
Even in France with its mature market and a population which has been educated over several generations in the strict codes dictated by the "Jupiterian narrative", we are seeing the emergence of Bacchanalian codes in the new generation of wine-growers. This development comes from the desire to simplify the industry and make it more accessible and emotional.
Anne-Victoire Monrozier is the daughter of a wine-grower in the Beaujolais region. In 2009 she started to make a name for herself in the industry through her blog Miss Vicky Wine, and little by little, began to sell her father's 'Fleurie' wine. However, as she herself explains, "traditional labels didn't fit with my idea of wine". So she created her own packaging with the help of her online community. The label changed to feature modern, personalised silhouettes which are put to an online public vote each year with the arrival of each new vintage. Much like Bacchus, she also wanted to distinguish herself from her father, become independent and create her own philosophy around wine.
With numerous examples like this both from abroad as well as France, and backed up by François Bobrie's semiotic analysis over the past decade, it is entirely reasonable to wonder whether a real revolution in wine packaging codes is underway.
Jupiter clearly belongs to a generation that is in a bad way, carrying the weight of heritage and tradition, and respecting rules which seem to have been branded and defined as lasting a lifetime. Are we still prepared to obey the diktat of the god of Olympus?
We mustn't forget that wine is more than a consumer product with simple functional (nutrition) and emotional (pleasure) attributes. Specialising in neuromarketing, the American research Institute Applied Iconology Inc. has found that on average we spend 6 minutes choosing a bottle of wine, compared to just 2.5 seconds for other food products. It would therefore be dangerous to consider wine as simply another one of these products which follows the same marketing rules.
It is still a highly indexed product with potential for a narrative vocabulary constructed over a long period of time, which one must learn to decipher and master. Without doubt, the Châteauneuf-du-Pape graphic codes represent the essence of this narrative tradition in France. A coat of arms dating from the Middle Ages features prominently, something which only a handful of truly historic wine producers are able to display with confidence and authenticity. The Medieval quality of the label is reinforced through the use of the Teutonic "Fraktur" font for the designation.
The choice and evolution of these wine codes are therefore not anecdotal and reflect the symbolic value associated with this beverage. Ever since ancient times, wine has held a sacred status at all levels of society, worshipped and cherished by some and forbidden by others. Today this status is expressed above all in relation to the era to which it belongs, both in terms of the production process used and the drinking philosophy. In the modern world in which everything is evolving more and more quickly and in which we are continually adapting to the changes around us, wine, like religion, remains a symbol of something permanent.
As a result, new countries producing contemporary wines, such as Lebanon, feel the need to draw on the heritage of their ancient ancestors when it comes to manufacturing processes (amphorae) and narratives (Phoenician alphabet and figurines) in order to establish a closer and deeper link with modern-day consumers.
Despite a strong mimetic attraction between the "Bacchanalian narrative" and our modern society, Jupiter has proved to us that his narrative remains valid over the long term, and that his son Bacchus doesn't have sole monopoly over the wine industry. Indeed, emotion isn't created solely through a flirty first glance, but through references, imagination and a story which create a richer experience with and around the product over time. Or, as Roland Barthes put it more beautifully in his book Mythologies, "wine isn't only a philtre, it is also the leisurely act of drinking".
It is very clear to us that wine isn't a straightforward product, but that doesn't mean that the usual brand rules and considerations don't apply: where does it come from? What is it? Who is it for? How is it different? What role does it have in the long term?
Looking at recent examples of iconic traditional producers accustomed to the "Jupiterian narrative", who have given in to the "Bacchanalian narrative" to reach a younger, international target market, we have the right to question respect for brand consistency. For example, the very essence of Dom Pérignon is based on the origin and values of the best known designation in the world: Champagne. Therefore, was this the right brand to be associating their own historic codes with those of the contemporary nightlife scene?
Beyond the choice of a narrative to interact more effectively with one target market over another, it is essential to return to the essence of the brand itself to know precisely how far the latter can change its codes without renouncing its own identity.
This year the Bordeaux grand cru winery, Château Pédesclaux, decided to work with the CBA branding agency to rethink its visual identity in a way that effectively reflects its dual traditional and modern identity and without totally breaking away from the categorical visual codes it belongs to. Franck Celay and Pauline Folcher from the Montpellier Business School carried out a study in 2013 on the visual codes of 117 châteaux members of the Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, and found that 90% of labels in the sample were rectangular, with either a yellowy-white or pure white background featuring black, burgundy, grey and gold text and illustrations. These labels communicated above all the ideas of luxury, social prestige, classicism and tradition in line with the "Jupiterian narrative". The question then is how the Bordeaux châteaux can play within these codes to differentiate themselves and modernise, while remaining coherent with the general image of their wine category (Heilbrunn, 2006). In the case of Château Pédesclaux, the company took the decision to change to a pure white label since this signifies superior quality paper, and by extension, a superior quality product, whereas the yellowy-white paper used previously signified the past and origins of the product, as well as its more traditional dimension (Blanchard, 1980). They also decided to reduce the use of serif fonts, which convey a certain "classicism", choosing to use newer sans serif fonts instead (Pohlen, 2011). In terms of illustrations, they decided to keep the frontal view of the château to reinforce the impression of stability and seriousness, but to update this to reflect the futuristic architectural work which has been carried out on the building.
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At the other end of the spectrum of visual wine codes, Uproot, a young, freer thinking Californian producer, set out to redefine the codes of the "new generation of wine tasters". There is nothing written on the bottle, just a minimalist, vertical strip featuring different colour blocks to represent the various tasting notes. This enables the consumer to choose the right bottle for them more intuitively, according to their personal tastes and preferences at the time.
Who knows, this new "Bacchanalian narrative" code could attract enough followers over the years to turn it into a new visual reference in the world of wine.
In any case, it appears that wine codes have not been abandoned under the influence of globalisation. On the contrary, they have been maintained and diversified, with each of them being entirely valid as long as they remain consistent with the brand and category in question. Without doubt, Jupiter and his son Bacchus are now united for life; isn't that what's called "the wine connection"?