Today, the biggest wine producers in the world would have their wine labels printed flexographically where soft and flexible plates are laid on large cylinders. This method is ideal for producing high quality labels in long runs. Labels are printed on a continuous roll. They are printed very quickly. In fact, the speed of these flexographic label printing machines can reach up to 7,000 metres per hour. The ink will dry quickly as they are water based. After printing is complete, options of lamination, die-cutting and waste stripping are also available.
Medium sized wine producers may prefer to print their wine labels on letterpress machines. Here, four plates for the four printing colours, i.e. black, yellow magenta and cyan, are placed on a flat surface. The label stock then passes over the printing plates and then goes back to in its initial position to foster continuous printing.
In the last ten years, advances in digital technology has meant that wine labels in runs as low as 50 can be produced in high quality and also economically since the costly preparation costs of printing plates are avoided when labels are printed digitally. This enables boutique wine producers and even individuals to have access to high quality wine labels at relatively low cost.
People have being drinking wine for thousands of years but the first records of wine labels are found in the late 19th century. The Museum of Victoria has on display several examples of wine labels from the early 20th century. Even as early as the 19th century, wine labels were produced with multiple colours so it is likely that the chemical process called chromolithography was used to print the labels. In this process, an image is applied to a stone or zinc plate. The stone is then gummed with a chemical solution and finally inked with oil based paints which pass through a printing press along with a sheet of paper. This process transfers the image to the paper.
One of the first designers of wine labels was Hans Irvine. He worked for his father’s printing business in Learmouth near Ballarat in Victoria in the 19th century. He acquired a share in this printing business in the 1880s but sold his interest in 1888. Nevertheless he had time to gain a lot of knowledge of the printing processes available in the late 19th century.
In the early 1890s, Irvine bought two-thirds of the local grape produce in the early 1890s. He had 250 acres of storage at the Great Western vineyard which is now owned by Seppelt.
The Irvine collection of wine labels at the State Library of Victoria shows that these wine labels display the Irvine family crest. Also, “Australian Wines” was shown on the label together with the type of wine and its location was altered slightly. For example, “Melbonia White” indicates white wine from Melbourne. Irvine’s wine labels were also distinctive because of his outstanding use of colour. He was able to use the knowledge he gained in his father’s printing business to design some of the best wine labels of his time.