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Bottle Shapes and Sizes, a Matter of Tradition or Utility?

by David on June 24, 2009

We have evidence that wine is over 7000 years old, and in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, it was stored in beautiful two-handled containers, usually clay, called amphorae. Some of them were quite sophisticated and were stamped with the equivalent of a wine label including the vintner’s name, the vintage, etc. Wine was also commonly stored in stoneware and leather. Although glass vessels go back to around 1500 BC in those regions, the glass was so difficult and costly to produce that it was mainly used for decorative purposes. Those who could afford them considered glass jewelry and other glass object to be as valuable as jewels. Small glass jugs and jars existed and were known to be superior to wood and clay for storing honey and wine, but for most people, the cost put them out of reach. This went on for thousands of years until the blowpipe was invented around 30 BC and led to what has been known as “The Golden Age of Glass” throughout the vast Roman Empire. Glass was a major step forward because it’s inert, neutral in flavor, unlike skins, and was much better at preventing oxidation when well sealed.

Blown glass containers were, at first, still so costly and fragile that they were only for the wealthy and were generally used as serving containers rather than storage vessels. It’s amazing that these ancient wine bottles were remarkably similar in size to the standard bottles of today. We believe that the size of these early bottles was determined by the lung capacity of the blower. By the mid 1600s, a new technique created bottles that were thicker, heavier, stronger and cheaper. It was easiest to blow a wide shape, so they had a bulbous, onion-shaped body with a funnel neck and a string to tie down the stopper. These were also very beautiful containers, collector’s items now, and usually they were lovely, dark greens and browns. The added strength meant they could be used for storage and transport now, and not just as a decanter. But for a long time, it was illegal to sell bottled wine, because the glass blowing methods were so primitive that the bottle sizes varied too much, almost inviting chicanery. It was actually more common at that time for the buyer to bring his own container and purchase a measured amount of wine from the producer.

By the18th century, glass-making technology had advanced to the point that the bottles became more uniform in size and shape. The uniformity of the neck was a great breakthrough because it allowed us to push the cork all the way into the bottle for the first time, improving the seal. It also created the need for our first cork screws, which were probably invented by the English. These steel worms, which they called bottle screws, were said to be modified gun worms that had been used to extract unspent bullets from muskets and pistols.

In the 1800s, the bottle evolved into the cylindrical shape we’re accustomed to now, which was much easier to bin and store than the onion-shaped bottles. The effectiveness of the cork was increased by the new habit of binning the bottles sideways, keeping the cork swollen with wine. By 1894, the first bottle-making machine made its debut in the Cognac region, which meant absolute uniformity of size and shape.

The Punt
Speaking of shape, there are always questions about the punt, or indentation, you find in the bottom of many bottles. The most likely reason we have punts is that they were born of ancient glass-blowing techniques. The word punt is short for pontil stick, which was a wooden tool that was attached to the base of the hot bottle while it was being blown. Of course the tool, which came to be known as the punty, left an indentation. That indentation was viewed as a real plus because it gave the bottle stability. If they attempted to make the bottom completely flat, it often came out convex and the bottle would tip. These days, antique glass vases and perfume bottles will get a higher price at auction if they have the original pontil scar.

If you do a little research, you’ll find numerous justifications for the continued use of the punt. Here are some of the most common ones.

  1. It’s true that long ago, when the glass was irregular and weak, the punt helped strengthen the Champagne bottle and displaced some of the pressure. This reduced the risk of explosions, which were rather frequent at one time. However, with modern materials and techniques, this isn’t really necessary any more.
  2. Traditionally, Champagne producers had a habit of stacking the bottles on top of each other, neck in punt, before final disgorging. This may still be done by some small producers, but not most.
  3. The punt helps to collect the sediment before you decant? Perhaps, but it’s not a necessity.
  4. A number of consumers have expressed the belief that we use the punt to disguise the fact that we’ve put less wine in the bottle! It never hurts to check, but standard-size wine bottles world-wide are 750 milliliters.
  5. Is it tradition and elegance? Absolutely! As you know, this is a very traditional business that changes rather slowly. And there’s nothing like watching the sommelier pour the wine slowly, holding the bottle with the label up, his thumb in the punt. Very elegant!
  6. Do you think it might be marketing? Now there’s an argument that makes sense! The punt makes the bottle look a little bigger and it also makes it heavy. That big, impressive bottle feels more substantial in your hand. We’ve got a great looking package, whether it’s sparkling or still wine, and you, in turn, may feel that this weighty wine is more valuable and special. Everybody’s happy!

Traditional Bottle Shapes
Around the beginning of the 19th century, different regions began to adopt their own bottle shapes, and they’re the same ones we use today. Even with the evolution of winemaking in the new world, being a traditional business, most of us put the Bordeaux varieties in a traditional Bordeaux bottle and a Burgundy-type in a Burgundy bottle. This is really practical, because it communicates the flavor profile to us in an instant, no reading required! That dark green, Bordeaux-shaped bottle will most likely have a Cabernet or Merlot-based wine inside. A green, slope-shouldered bottle will probably contain Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. So here’s a run-down on the most popular shapes.

The Bordeaux Bottle
The Bordeaux region, in south-western France developed the high-shouldered bottle with straight sides for its wines. They say that those almost-flat shoulders were meant to help trap sediment when the wine is decanted. Anyway, red Bordeaux varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and white Bordeaux-types like Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, are usually packaged this way regardless of where they’re produced, and the whites will usually be in clear glass or light green bottles. Authentic Sauternes, from the southern part of Bordeaux, is a late harvest of predominantly Semillon, and will also come in the clear Bordeaux bottle. So will most new-world Sauternes styles, whatever they may be called. The problem with the Bordeaux bottle is it’s often used as a catch-all and can represent lots of different styles of wine, for instance it’s common to find Zinfandel in the Bordeaux bottle, but at least you know the intention.

The Burgundy Bottle
The classic Burgundy bottle is the elegant, slope-shouldered green bottle, with a fairly wide body. The red grape of Burgundy is Pinot Noir and the white is Chardonnay and this bottle shape is used by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay producers throughout the world. The tricky part is that the wines of the Loire Valley are often packaged in the Burgundy bottle too, and bottles in general have become more stylized – we can buy the equivalent of designer bottles these days. Plus, other shapes are awfully similar, such as the Rhone shape, which often represents Syrah or a southern Rhone-style blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and other varieties. If you look closely, you’ll see that the Rhone bottle is not quite as wide and the slope is more severe than it is for a Burgundy bottle.

Champagne Bottles
In the early days of making sparkling wine in the Champagne region, it was a perilous business going into the cellar because bottles exploded on a frighteningly regular basis. Winemakers and cellar workers routinely wore face masks and eye protection to avoid injury or disfigurement. Eventually, the thick, heavy bottle with the very deep punt we know now was developed, and it’s not as hard for sparkling wine producers to keep their cellar workers from looking for other employment. It takes a very strong bottle to contain all the pressure, which at around 90 pounds per square inch is 3 times the pressure in a typical car tire-and even though we don’t need the punt any more, it’s such an ingrained tradition that we can expect sparkling wines to come in the slope-shouldered bottle with the deep punt for some time to come.

The German Bottle
It’s important to talk about German bottles because Riesling is making a major come-back! These are elegant, tall, slim bottles with long necks, and we’ll be seeing more and more of them on the shelves in the near future. Traditionally, if it’s a wine from the Mosel, the bottle is green and if it’s from the Rhine it’s brown. The Alsatian wines of north-eastern France usually go in the Mosel bottle. In the new world, we tend to use this bottle shape to represent sweet wine of any type, but when the wine’s from Germany, it may or may not be sweet, so you need to read the label.

It’s surprising that bottle sizes haven’t really been uniform world wide until quite recently. As part of the push to go metric in the US a few decades ago, we went from bottling one fifth of a gallon to 750 milliliters. Our eagerness to cooperate may have had something to do with the fact that this conversion allowed us to put a little less wine in the bottle without necessarily lowering the price. Conveniently, at about the same time, the European Union decided to standardize with us and that seemed to set the standard for the rest of the world.

Large Format Bottles
There’s nothing like bringing out an impressive, truly large bottle at a big celebration like a wedding or anniversary party. It’s an immediate attention getter. We call them festive bottles because once you open one you have to drink the whole thing

Collectors love big bottles for a couple of reasons: most wineries bottle very few of them, so there’s a rarity factor and the bigger the bottle, the more slowly and gracefully the wine ages. This is because the larger the volume of wine, the smaller the surface area, and the slower the oxygen diffusion. Slower maturation often translates into better maturation when it comes to wine. Plus, the larger volume of liquid takes longer to warm or cool and is more resistant to potentially damaging temperature fluctuations. Anyway, if you want to put a bottle down for some far-off great occasion, you’re smart to get a large-format bottle. Conversely, if you’re in a hurry, get a half bottle. Half bottles don’t age well. In fact, some wineries don’t bottle them for fear of a loss of quality. They’re more subject to oxidation because the neck and ullage are proportionally larger for the amount of wine. In terms of pricing, wine bucks convention and there’s no volume discount, in fact quite the opposite. As the bottle gets bigger and bigger, it alone becomes very costly and that will be reflected in the cost of the wine to you.

Large format bottles carry some rather impressive names. You probably know that a double-bottle is called a magnum. This comes from the Latin, translating as “a big one!” As the bottles get bigger many of them take on the names of biblical Kings. But, assigning the right name to the big bottle gets a little murky, depending upon its shape. For instance a double magnum, or 3-liter bottle, is called a double magnum in the Bordeaux shape, but it’s a Jeroboam if it’s a Champagne or Burgundy-type. Champagne and Burgundy are aligned in their names and Bordeaux goes its own way.

The 4.5-liter bottle doesn’t seem to be an important part of the American repertoire, but in Bordeaux it is the Jeroboam and this 6-bottle equivalent is called a Rehoboam in Burgundy and Champagne.

A six-liter, the equivalent of 8 bottles and very festive indeed, is called a Methuselah in Burgundy and Champagne, and the Bordeaux equivalent is called the Imperial. Many great Napa Valley Cabernets are bottled in this size. Bordeaux wines aren’t bottled in anything larger than an Imperial except on rare occasion, but a nine-liter bottle of Burgundy, better known as “a case in a bottle” is a Salmanazar.

If a case in a bottle isn’t enough for you, then a 12-liter, which is 16 bottles, is a Balthazar. For a truly large bottle of Burgundy-type, a fifteen-liter bottle is the equivalent of 20 bottles and is called a Nebuchadnessar. That’s going to be one great party!

All of this may seem a little over the top, but these bottles have brought in untold millions at charity auctions over the years due to their rarity. But just to take a look at another side of wine packaging, you should know that at a recent blind tasting at a Society of Wine Educators conference, a panel of experts showed a preference for wine from a 3-liter box compared to the same wine from a 750- milliliter bottle by two to one. Maybe quantity is a virtue no matter the packaging! For you marketing and spin enthusiasts, the box was referred to as a “3-liter premium cask.” The tasters also showed a preference for a screw-cap finished wine over the same wine from a cork-finished bottle. Perhaps the true test would have been comparing a 3-liter bottle with the 3-liter box, but it still makes a strong statement about the efficacy of the bag-in-box format and the members of The Alliance for Innovative Wine Packaging, who were present at the tasting, were delighted with the results.

The world is changing so quickly, even our tradition-bound wine industry, that who’s to say what kinds of containers and closures we’ll be using in another fifty years? As always, whether it’s a bag-in-box or a priceless Nebuchadnezzar, the most important thing is to enjoy the wine with friends, family and great food.

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