Never mind the bottles...

As we drink more wine the packaging has become more frivolous, writes Sheila Prophet
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What do Trio, Poets Corner and Catalyst have in common? And who are Big Frank, Cardinal Zin and the Fat Bastard?

Believe it or not, these are all brands of wine. Wine marketing is becoming bolder and brasher by the day, with wacky names, riotous labels and sexy bottles, It seems it's all part of Britain's new, light-hearted attitude to the grape.

"Ten years ago we didn't understand wine and we stuck to those stolid North European wines that were designed to go with food," says David Howes, Communications Manager of Thresher Wine Shops. "Then the Australians reinvented wine and gave us something fresh, fruity and springy which was great to drink on its own. The packaging changed along with the style of wine. Today we all know much more about wine, it's part of everyday life, and we are demanding a bit of frivolity."

If the Aussies started the whole thing, supermarkets such as Tesco and Safeway have also done their bit by taking the fear out of buying wine. One major advance is what the trade calls "varietorial" labelling, which means labelling wine by the grape rather than the region it comes from. The result is that now we all know our Chardonnays from our Sauvignons,

The other big change is the attention given to labels. The ideal back label contains clear, helpful information about the wine itself and the serving of it, while the front is often a miniature work of art.

Beautiful labels were once confined to very expensive wines, such as Chateau de Mouton Rothschild, whose makers commissioned artists such as Picasso to illustrate them. These days everyday wines under a fiver are doing the same thing.

Nick Dymoke-Marr, Senior Wine Buyer for the supermarket chain Asda says: "Labels are especially important us to because 80 per cent of our buyers are women and there is a saying that the first glass is with the eye. Wine also has a certain romance, which we want to preserve."

The result is that many bottles now bear names and scenes which evoke their exotic origins. Asda have a range of Greek wines called Temple Ruins and Marble Mountain, and of course there are numerous Australian Wines with unpronounceable names and dreamy water colours depicting the outback.

There's no doubt these pictures are pretty, but are they accurate? " Sometimes we do use a bit of artistic licence," confesses David Howes. "When we launched Kings Canyon, a Californian wine, the makers sent over their idea for the label, a pretty picture with apple trees and little animals playing around. It wasn't what we wanted at all. Instead we sent back a picture of rugged scenery, with great rocks reaching to the sky, and said `This what we want'. OK, it is actually in Arizona, but it looks dramatic on the shelf."

Drama is also the key when it comes to colour. Eye-catching reds, oranges and yellows remain the favourite choices, although the very latest trend is to break a long held colour taboo in the industry and use the colour blue.

"We have a South African wine called Lost Horizons, which is in a blue bottle. We were always told never to use blue with wine, though no one seems to know where this taboo came from, but people seem to like it, as it is selling extraordinarily well," says Geraldine Jago, Wine Development Manager of The Victoria Wine Company.

In fact the bottles themselves can be an important selling point. Remember those Paul Masson carafes we all collected a few years ago?

"The newest bottle is sexy - long and slim with a flanged lip at the top to stop drips, and a tiny label," says David Howes. " The Californian company Gallo have used this shape for their wine Turning Leaf, and a Chilean winemaker called Ignacio Recabarren has used it for a wine called Trio which he produced for us. He says the name represents the three elements of wine, the soil, the climate and the maker - he is a very vain man! When he first produced Trio, Ignacio said, ` This bottle has the beauty of Sharon Stone - you can see everything you are getting!'"

An increasing number of wines are named after people, some of whom exist and some don't. The Victoria Wine Company, for example have a popular range named Big Frank - there's Big Frank's Red, Big Frank's White, and his latest, a sweet wine called Big Frank's Seriously Sticky. "Yes, Big Frank exists," says Geraldine Jago. "He is Frank Chludinski, a Pole from Boston who married a lady from the South of France whose father had a vineyard, and now he makes wine. We also have Ed's Red, and he exists too. He is flying winemaker Ed Flaherty. "

However, Fat Bastard, a Chardonnay sold by the new Firkin chain is not named after an overbearing vineyard owner with a big appetite. Instead the wine was apparently christened when its French maker, Thierry Boudinaud, tasted it and pronounced it "a fat bastard of a Chardonnay".

Trendy chain Oddbins have a few characters of their own, though they admit these exist only in the imaginations of eccentric winemaker Randall Grahm and the artist Ralph Steadman, who designs many of their labels. "There is the Catalyst, a cat named in a bar in Santa Cruz, close to Randall's vineyard, and there is Cardinal Zin, a religious chap who has been tempted off the straight and narrow by the Zinfandel grape," says Oddbins' Karen Wise.

Randall's other wines include the authentically Italian sounding Rosato Del Fiasco, named because the first batch proved a disaster, and two best- selling bottles simply called Bloody Good White and Bloody Good Red.

Thankfully, wine isn't yet competing with alcopops such as Two Dogs, named after the rude schoolboy joke about the first thing the Indian baby saw outside its wigwam. But jokiness is definitely catching on. The Victoria Wine Company already sells a New Zealand Sauvignon called Cat's Pee On A Gooseberry Bush, which surprisingly sells well, and even sillier names look set to follow.

It may all be just a gimmick, but it seems to be working. Our consumption of wine has quadrupled in the last 25 years, and even wine experts are smiling, "Cat's Pee and Fat Bastard may be straining the boundaries of good taste, but on the whole the use of humour to break down the fear of buying wine and to make it more accessible can only be a good thing," says Gareth Lawrence of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust. "Of course it wouldn't work if the wine itself didn't match up, but that isn't the case. In the last few years there has been a vast improvement in the standards of even the cheapest wines."