Anthony Rose: 'When it comes to label design the line between taste and kitsch is a fine one'

If you happened to have the odd £50k going spare, you could have snapped up the 60-bottle collection of every vintage from 1945 to 2003 (1948 apart) of Château Mouton Rothschild at Sotheby's recent 40th anniversary auction. The significance of the collection lies in the artists' labels, commissioned for each new vintage by Baron Philippe de Rothschild, and painted by, among others, Miró (1969), Chagall (1970), Picasso (1973), Andy Warhol (1975) and Francis Bacon (1990). The tradition was maintained by his daughter Baroness Philippine after his death, but this particular haul stopped one year short of the 2004 label painted by one Prince Charles.

Claude Taittinger had already drawn on his company's 1960s Belle Epoque-style poster, when he followed the example of Philippe de Rothschild in creating the Taittinger Collection. Among the artists commissioned to design limited-edition bottles of Taittinger's champagne were Vasarely, Roy Lichtenstein (right), and André Masson. Given up for dead during the Great War, Masson had been administered a glass of champagne as a form of "last sacrament". Not only did he make a full recovery but, on finding it to be an aphrodisiac, sketched a couple emerging from a moment of bliss to illustrate the ecstasy of the moment. Taittinger's 11-bottle Collection today sells for £4,300.

The latest to receive the broad-brush treatment is the luxurious 2002 Dom Pérignon, £85.39, Lay & Wheeler (0845 330 1855). Central Saint Martin's Design team has created a Pop Art-label Andy Warhol version in red, blue and yellow, £140 a pop at The Champagne Company (07952 665595). Arty champagne design is not always successful. When the hip-hop star Jay-Z fell out with Cristal, into the breach stepped Armand de Brignac "Ace of Spades". This hitherto obscure champagne comes in a garish metallic gold, adorned with a pewter ace-of-spades label. Despite the medallion-man bling and £250 price tag, the Brut Gold, from Cattier, is an excellent fizz.

The line between taste and kitsch is a fine one. Kröver Nacktarsch depicts a German kellermeister smacking a boy's bare bottom. You might think Italy's version would be Marsala's Terre Arse, but this is simply Italian that gets lost in translation. It's surprising how many tasteless wine labels there are, from France's Brouilly Pisse-Vieille and Fat Bastard to Australia's Château La Trine and California's Cleavage Creek. In fairness to the latter, described as "full-bodied and vivacious", it started out as a would-be collector's item, like Marilyn Merlot, but its new owner donates 10 per cent of proceeds to breast cancer research. In contrast, a surreal Madonna's naked top in Anelia Pavlova's Australian portrait, designed for Peter Lehmann's Queen of Clubs Series, had to be airbrushed for the US market.

Such labels are fertile ground for the prudish: 30,000 bottles of the 1993 Mouton Rothschild had to be recalled when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (BATF) found Balthus's pre-pubescent nymphet too provocative. It recalled the saga of Kenwood Winery's "Naked Lady" painted by David Goines for the winery's first Artist Series label in 1975. The BATF demanded that the reclining nude be deleted, so he painted a skeleton instead. Artists might be better off sticking to tasteless political labels like Alessandro Lunardelli's historical series, featuring among others Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler. It may have left a bitter taste in the mouth, but sales went through the roof.

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