Thursday 14 March 2013

Artifice v Artisan - the two faces of one Rioja

It is hard enough deciding which wine to buy. It is important to stand in front of the shelves and appear suave and knowing, and not baffled by the varieties and prices like a schoolboy faced with a complicated range of condoms.

In general, I have think I have mastered the required image of sagacity. And then, I find myself faced with the situation I have captured here. On the left, we have Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005. And on the right, Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005.

I think we can agree, without the intervention of forensics, that there are certain differences between these two adjacent bottles. An ordinary customer, their eyes fleeting nervously along the shelves, fearful of confusing the Rhine and the Rhone, might think these are two completely different wines. A wine-buff might anticipate some kind of arcane distinction, as between vintage and late-bottled vintage port. But no – they are exactly the same wine. They are both Coto de Imaz Rioja, Reserva 2005.

For ease of identification, let’s call them the one on the left, and the one on the right.

Someone, probably wearing challenging spectacles, has clearly told El Coto de Rioja that they need to rebrand.  Their label needed to resemanticise its juxtapository elements to reengage the target cohort. Or somesuch.

Change the label! What, in time for the next vintage? No, right now. In the middle of a year? Just swap it over. No-one will ever see them together…

(There is probably some poor teenage shelf-stacker, still as confused at the order to put two visibly different bottles together on the shelves as I am to see them there.)

Now, people tell me that you’re not supposed to choose your wine on the basis of the label. I know that. But…what if you have no choice? If the same wine has two labels? You have to choose on the basis of the label.

Oh, it doesn’t matter, they’ll say. It’s the same wine. It doesn’t matter. Well clearly it does, otherwise they wouldn’t have changed it. It clearly matters to someone at El Coto de Rioja. And it matters to me. Because I don’t know which one to buy.

Are they really going to taste the same? The one on the left declares on the back that “long ageing in oak casks has provided this wine with great complexity and potential”, a clear and appealing statement. 

But the one on the right says that “long maceraction (sic) times have provided it with a stable and powerful tannic structure. Its long ageing in American oak cask (sic again) has developed it to stand a long ageing in bottle and to assure a succesful evolution (all, sadly, sic).”

There’s something endearingly authentic about that clumsy translation, as if Manuel, prior to his job at Fawlty Towers, were working in the labelling department. “Is OK, Senor, I speak English well. I learn it from a book.

“I write label.”

And the one on the right just feels more genuine. The clumsy translation, the hand-drawn type, the shadowy woodcut…probably all similarly created in an earlier, Don Draper era of marketing, when it wasn’t the spectacles which were challenging but the tobacco consumption. But nevertheless, much more redolent of “el Siglo XVI” of which they boast on the label.

The one on the left is just knee-jerk upmarket, its polished look and language intended for the modern global market. The crisp edges and proper serifs of a digital typeface, the touches of gold foil (as opposed to gold-ish colour), the image of a winery where they have improved the weather, trimmed the shrubbery and shifted the boulders from the foreground.

It’s a shiny international construct, seemingly drawn from the design of cigarette packets.

Ironically, heritage and authenticity are some of the most desirable things in markets right now.  The last thing most people want is to feel that a product has just been created, designed to chase the glossy money of oligarchs and oilmen, the banker’s bonus and the hedgie’s wedge. Artisan is a good word – artifice is not.

So waiting just around the corner will be another marketing chap, in his Carhartt jacket, Sunspel underwear and Woolrich shirt. And he’s going to say to Coto de Rioja, look at this wonderful old bottle I saw…it’s so authentic

Of course, I bought the one on the right. I’m a sucker for authenticity. Even if it’s fake.

And what does it taste like? Well…the same as the one on the left.


1 comment:

  1. A very nice piece which also reminds me of the lovely old labels we used to get on bottles of rioja. They were always a bit old fashioned, even in about 1980, when I first took an interest in the stuff. I remember Bodegas Riojanas & its Vina Albina, which I haven't seen here for years and probably could never afford now, as well as Vina Zaco, from Bodegas Bilbainas, both old rioja concerns. It's all a bit designer-boutique-style now, which is a shame.


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