In the early 2000s, two unrelated incidents gave Dirk Niepoort an idea, and the idea went on to become an international success story that has been exported to more than 20 countries, with annual production now reaching about 1.5m bottles. But at the time, he recalls: “Everybody thought I was an idiot.”
Fabelhaft, to give the wine its original German name, is a deceptively simple concept that works chiefly thanks to labels that are witty, unstuffy and tweaked to the demands of the local market, and wine styles that are approachable without being two-dimensional.
It was born in the early 2000s, when Niepoort was pondering the changing face of the global wine landscape. “One of the things I asked myself was why were the Australian wines so successful in the UK?” he says. “The answer was easy: the language. We live in countries that are chauvinistic, some more, some less – and the language is the easiest link.”
One day, he joined Austrian designer Cordula Alessandri to look at label concepts that university students had put together for her. One depicted a fable in a cartoon style. He thought it was beautiful; she was unconvinced.
A short time afterwards, the German word “fabelhaft” (fabulous) came up in conversation. “I said: ‘This is the name’,” says Niepoort. “She thought I was drunk or on drugs, or something like that.”
The appeal of the idea was partly rooted in Niepoort’s love of comics, for which he was often ridiculed by friends and colleagues, who would pretend not to know him on flights as he sat reading about Mickey Mouse. “I said: ‘One day I’m going to laugh at you. I’m going to make something very successful with a comic’.”
Few thought that Fabelhaft was going to fulfil that prediction. “I started in 2002 with a Douro red wine, but it was a nightmare to convince my people to accept it was a good idea,” Niepoort says. “Everybody thought I was an idiot. At the same time, I’m a little bit stubborn.”
The break came when Niepoort attended a German fair, taking photocopies of the label concept with him – a cartoon of the adventures of the raven Huckebein, originally drawn by 19th-century artist Wilhelm Busch. People loved it. “It was a huge success,” says Niepoort. Before long, Fabelhaft had expanded into Switzerland and Austria. When the concept migrated to the Netherlands, it needed a tweak: a new name – Gestolen Fiets, or “Stolen Bicycles” – a new story and a new artist. “I remember one old Dutch guy had a really negative reaction to the name, because he associated it with the war and Nazi Germany,” recalls Niepoort. ‘Luckily, he was the only one.”
As the concept moved into other markets, more artists were employed, new stories explored and fresh names created. In just over 15 years, it has been sold in more than 20 nations, across Europe, North America, into Asia (Japan, China), South Africa and Brazil. “As we moved into Estonia, Poland, America, the UK and so on, I must say it was a fantastic, very rewarding job meeting all these cartoonists,” recalls Niepoort. “Ninety-five percent of them were incredibly nice and positive. You can really figure out how interesting a culture or a country is by trying to make these labels.”
The wine inside
The original idea of a red Douro blend expanded to include a Reserva (from the 2007 vintage), a white (launched in 2011), various special editions thematically linked to surfing, winter sports – and even synchronised swimming. There are Fabelhaft Ports – slightly different, with fewer images on the label – and a Mosel Riesling from Niepoort’s FIO joint venture.
For the core offerings, however, the wine – whether it’s called Drink Me (UK), Twisted (US), Eto Carta (Japan), or Diálogo (Portugal) – remains the same. “We are a little bit like Coca-Cola, but the other way around,” says Niepoort. While the giant soft drinks brand retains the same name and image all over the world, but tweaks its formula to suit local tastes, Fabelhaft does the opposite. “I’m stubborn and the wine is what I want it to be,” says Niepoort.
That preference is rooted in aiming at an accessible expression of the Douro and a long-running family dialogue between Dirk Niepoort and his father, Rolf. “I kept on for years and years bothering my father, my parents and older friends because they always talked about certain restaurants, usually because the wines were so good. I kept asking people to describe those wines. In the end, my father said: ‘Leave me alone! The wines were just good!’ Why were they good? ‘They were wines that, the more you drank them, the better they tasted.’ I said: ‘You are a genius, you are a poet.’ He told me to leave him alone again, but I thought he was hitting the nail.”
The early 2000s were a time of high-octane wines: big, fat, woody, sweet. Niepoort vowed to go the other way. “I wanted to make a wine that was authentic. Not too tannic, not too heavy. It was very important to me to have our own style of wine, although we struggled at first. The Portuguese in particular expected a Niepoort wine to be heavy and serious and all that.” It was also, says Niepoort, an age of easy, varietal-led communication – Cabernet, Chardonnay, Merlot. “I never liked that side of simplification,” he says. “I’ve always been very protective of using Portuguese names and grape varieties.”
Fabelhaft is anything but simple. The red is a blend of Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Tinta Amarela, a bit of Touriga Nacional, plus fruit from older field blend vineyards; the white similar, with Rabigato, Códega, Gouveio, Viosinho and so on – a lengthy list of hard-to-pronounce grape varieties. However, the execution, including picking relatively early from cooler, high-altitude vineyards, little tinkering in the winery and the restrained use of oak, and the packaging are both clean and straightforward.
“I’m quite sure that we are a little bit responsible for a better name for Portuguese wines in some countries, mainly Germany and Switzerland,” says Niepoort. “And the perception is that it’s a Portuguese wine – Douro is very prominent on the label. I think Portuguese wine these days is in a fantastic, positive place, but back then it was very tough.”
There is still work to be done. China is a prime target, but the best markets for Fabelhaft remain Germany and Switzerland, and Niepoort is happy with the US, Canada, Norway and Japan. “There are some countries I would like to play with and become more active. We have very few people working on the project. We could sell a lot more in different markets if someone tried to show and sell the wine.”
Although Fabelhaft has expanded, Niepoort says he has had few issues sourcing grapes of the right quality and quantity, although he acknowledges that it is a “logistical nightmare” involving five different wineries.
The big lesson, he believes, was not giving up in the first place. “There was a moment when I was really frustrated because nobody believed in my idea. I thought of making this project with another company, but Dorli Muhr [Niepoort’s ex-wife] came to me and said: ‘Look, I’ve never seen you so sure about something, even though I don’t have a clue of what you are talking about. So do it with Niepoort – don’t give away your idea to someone else’. That was good advice.”
“Do you think there is a difference in design if you make something for Portugal or something for Germany?” Cordula Alessandri asked her German university students. The students replied they weren’t idiots, and that, yes, there are national differences. After she gave them a label challenge, one of her students drew the Rabe Huckebein (the unlucky raven) from a story by Wilhelm Busch. “The story is 150 years old but very funny,” said Alessandri. “The bird dies because he’s so greedy drinking this wine.”
It was 2004 and the student was paid in wine and the concept developed professionally. “All the German speaking people know the story,” said Alessandri, adding that if someone with no design background can remember and describe a label, then the label has been effective.
The new Fabelhaft label did so well that Niepoort asked Alessandri to extend the concept to other markets. The idea was to take stories and images that were locally famous; Don Quixote for Spain, and Alice in Wonderland for the UK. Designers from the respective country were used, though Alessandri did the briefing. “We asked cartoonists and said, ‘please draw an illustration and a cartoon in 12 pictures. It should be about your country, about wine, and it would be nice if it has a funny or even bad ending’.”
Dorli Muhr of Austria’s Wine & Partners, who helped create the brand, says that one of the advantages of having different labels in different countries is that it stamps out the grey market. As there is a Fabelhaft Port Wine – which uses the Busch story Max & Moritz – it also encourages people to buy both wines together, to get the set.
The Fabelhaft labels represent a key moment in wine label design. But, says Alessandri, “if the product is not good, you can do the best,” design work possible, and “it will not work”.
The interviews with Alessandri and Muhr were done by Meininger’s in 2014.