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Message on a bottle

Published:  23 July, 2008

Stormhoek - the premium South African wine brand co-owned by UK importer Orbital wines - is introducing fresh before' dates on its labels.

As well as a graphic device that recommends when the wines - initially the Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Ros from the 2005 vintage (all 5.99) - should be drunk, the back label states: To enjoy this wine at its freshest and best, consume before March 2007.'

Andrew Porton, marketing manager at Orbital Wines, claims this is the first time that a wine brand has gone so far in giving consumers advice on drinking windows: Similar things have been tried before, but they usually only say something like "this wine can be cellared for three years" or "drink this wine within two years of purchase", which is ultimately relatively meaningless.'

Nick Dymoke-Marr, managing director of Stormhoek, said the inspiration for the move came from drinking too many wines that were obviously out of condition: It's well known in the trade that only a few wines are meant to age, but we still see wines on shelf that are far too old. I saw a 2001 Australian Chardonnay on a retailer's shelf not that long ago, and it was not of a style that would last.'

According to Porton, the original plan was to use a more traditional-sounding best before' date. We decided that would be misleading, as there is no set date when wine goes off - it's not like a ready meal - but there is definitely a point at which it starts to go downhill,' he said. As well as drinking advice, he said the label will contain information on why freshness matters'. A lot of consumers still have the perception that wines only get better with age,' he explained. First you have to say that's not true, but you have to do it in a way that doesn't cheapen the product.'

The commercial problems raised by this move - top of which is what to do with unsold stock - are obvious, but Dymoke-Marr said that the main retailers had backed the move and that moving the excess stock shouldn't pose a problem: We're not a million-case brand so we haven't got enormous amounts to sell [last year the Sauvignon Blanc was the top seller at 40,000 nine-litre cases].

We can promote it down to 4.99, which we'll do when the new vintage is released to get the ball rolling, then if there is a lot of stock still to sell just before the new vintage arrives, which is unlikely, we can come to some agreement to do another promotion to deal with that.'

The drink within two years of vintage' recommendation about to appear on the whites and the ros will be made longer for the reds - currently a Shiraz and a Cabernet (both 5.99). We haven't fully decided what it'll say on the reds yet, but it will be a little bit different, although the message will essentially be the same,' said Dymoke-Marr.

Additional information on the Stormhoek brand and the absolute freshness' programme will be carried on what Orbital is calling a bottle billboard' - essentially a plastic sheaf that covers the bottom third of the bottle that is added after bottling and can be removed after purchase. I didn't want to use a collarette as I think they look rather messy, and shop staff often take them off anyway,' said Dymoke-Marr. You can get a lot of information on the "billboard", and we will be able to articulate the whole freshness programme in depth. It does add cost, but I think it's worth it.'

Paris lawyer Nicole Coutrelis was hired to look into the tight EU labelling directives, and has said that the statement is perfectly acceptable. We don't expect any legal problems on the basis of the advice we have been given,' said Porton.

He added that he would be keen for other wine companies to adopt the message for their own brands. We are quite happy for that to happen,' he said. Our particular approach, including the graphic device, are trademarked, but I really believe that freshness doesn't stop with the closure. Putting the wines under screwcap, as we have, is only the start.'