From being plain or positively rustic to becoming aesthetic statements in themselves, wine labels have been undergoing something of an artistic revolution in recent years. Original art can be found gracing bottles, while the winemaking artistry evident in their contents is increasingly being reflected in their visual presentation.
Last month, Auckland artist Belinda Griffiths was awarded the winesale.co.nz Wine Label Art Award, which will see her work, Breathe feature on the label of a Martinborough pinot noir and a Marlborough sauvignon blanc.
This award, founded last year by art collector, winemaker and winesale.co.nz general manager Michael Mebus, grew from his involvement with the NZ Art show, from which the winner was selected and the belief that an alliance of wine and art could be mutually beneficial.
"We could also see both struggling wineries and artists and thought it would be ideal combining two different art media," he explains. "On many levels both wine and painting are forms of art: whether we enjoy the beauty through tasting or our eyes, those sensations can be remarkably similar."
Though the first wine labels were utilitarian affairs, simply communicating the contents of the bottle, labels have now come to function as a visual identity for a winery and an important marketing tool. Top Bordeaux chateau Mouton Rothschild was one of the first to champion the art of the wine label, from the 1940s commissioning artists from Pablo Picasso to Andy Warhol to create original work for their labels.
Wine labels have even had their own exhibitions, such as Beyond the pour: Pairing art and wine label design at the San Francisco Museum of Craft + Design some years back. Curated by artist and historian Bob Nugent, this inspired his book, Imagery: Art for Wine, which has been joined by other tomes on the subject, such as Tanya Scholes' recently published The Art and Design of Contemporary Wine Labels, which explores some of the world's most creative designs.
Scholes features a number of New Zealand labels, testament to the fact that our labels are getting more innovative after a period when the crests and landscape sketches that graced many a label seemed out of sync with their regularly more cutting edge contents.
"It takes guts to be innovative in your wine labelling and unfortunately it does not always work," acknowledges Mebus. However, he adds: "We can all make our wine labels scream for attention, which take guts and a good designer. Why not use art? It should be an extension."
Artist Dick Frizzell has designed striking labels for his own range, while textile artist Jenny Hill has used her work to suggest the landscapes from which the wines of her Locharburn estate hail.
"The art and wine parallel to me is more personal," says Hill. "My dream was to create my art on the vineyard, with these two passions realised with the new Locharburn Wines label that features my mixed media piece, Textures of Locharburn."
One of my personal favourite art-influenced labels is that of Dada wines. Borrowing its aesthetic from the early 20th century cultural movement of the same name, its distinctive look is reminiscent of a Dadaist collage, using the pointing mannequin hand popular in the movement's imagery, "an artist's tool that echoes the creative nature of the wine," according to its makers.
With the making of wine increasingly being recognised as an art rather than a craft, the time is ripe for this to be echoed in more creative packaging, and here art may well be able to assist.
THE WINE PALETTE
Dada 2 2009 $70
The second release from this enigmatic label is a red blend based on merlot with some syrah and cabernet franc. In the Dadaist spirit, its makers have negated conventional winemaking values by opting to add none of the preservative sulphur. With an elegant, dense, velvety blackberry fruit and earthy graphite undercurrent lifted by notes of violet. (From Wine Vault, Bacchus, La Barrique.)
Locharburn Central Otago Pinot Gris 2010 $27.95
An attractive dry gris with fresh apple and pear fruit and spice supported by a savoury stony undertone. (From Wine Vault, Top Shelf Liquor, Mt Eden Liquor, Eden Foods Ltd, Salute, Northcote Liquor.)
ART AWARD WINNER
Art Series Thurston "Union" Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2010 $16.99
A painting by Winesale.co.nz's inaugural Wine Label Art Award winner, Richard Thurston adorns the bottle of this Marlborough sauvignon with its ripe papaya fruit set off by tones of zesty lime, mineral and nuances of asparagus. Part of the proceeds from the wine goes to the artist and the New Zealand Art Show.