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Q: What’s with all the different wine-bottle shapes?

by David on August 4, 2008

Question from Bob: Why do the wine bottles have certain shapes? Does the bottle shape mean anything? Why do some of them have indentations at the bottom?

Reply: Hi, Bob! Thanks for writing!

I think tradition is the short answer. But, just imagine how dull the shelves would look if all the bottles were the same shape, size and color??? Shopping wouldn’t be half as much fun…

Anyway, around the beginning of the 19th century, some French 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 actually kind of 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 may well probably contain Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Beyond that, there’s a whole lot of creativity in bottle design, especially for italian winemakers, and also for dessert wine producers. So, here’s a run-down on the most popular shapes:      


THE BORDEAUX BOTTLE
The Bordeaux region, in south-western France, adopted the high-shouldered bottle with straight sides for its wines. They say that those almost-flat shoulders were meant to help catch the 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, from any part of the world, for instance it’s common to find Zinfandel in the Bordeaux bottle. But – at least you know the intention. Oh – and if that Sauvignon Blanc is from the Loire Valley (Sancerre, Pouilly Fumé), you’ll find it in the burgundy bottle.

THE BURGUNDY BOTTLE
The classic Burgundy bottle has a wide body, compared to the Bordeaux, and the shoulder has an elegant slope to it. 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. 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 will often bear a coat of arms on the neck.

THE GERMAN/ALSATIAN BOTTLE

It’s important to talk about German bottles because Riesling is making a major come-back! These are tall, slim bottles with long, graceful 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 “Hock” wine from the Rhine, it’s brown. The Alsatian wines of north-eastern France usually go in the Mosel bottle. If it’s from the new world, we tend to use this bottle shape to represent sweet wine of any type and the color is the one the marketing department prefers.

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 three-times the pressure in a typical car tire. The punt also came in handy for stacking the bottles “en point” – nose down, one on top of the other. Very few producers still store their wine this way.

WHY THE PUNT?
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.

WHY DO WE STILL HAVE IT? We keep rationalzing it…
1. Many will say that Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wine still requires the punt to help strengthen the bottle. According to our consultant, with modern materials and techniques, this isn’t really necessary any more.

2. The punt helps to collect the sediment before you decant? OK, but do we really need it?

3. 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! Shocking!!! ;-) But, it never hurts to check – standard-sized wine bottles world-wide are 750 milliliters.

4. Is it tradition and showmanship? Absolutely! 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!

5. 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. The producer has 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.

As you know, the world is changing very quickly, and so are attitudes about packaging. These heavy, expensive bottles are beginning to become politically incorrect. Even in our tradition-bound wine industry, 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 double magnum of Cabernet, the most important thing is to enjoy it over a great meal with friends and family. Cheers!

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