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The Ubiquitous Wine Bottle – Billions Are Used Annually but Humble Vessel Has Fascinating Past

By JOHN HAGARTY

In the mid-1600s, the Dutch produced square wine bottles similar to our traditional olive oil bottles of today. It enabled wine to be stored and shipped more efficiently. But for some unknown reason, the idea went down a rabbit hole and was never heard from again.

But that’s getting ahead of our story.

montrachet bottles 1898

Burgundy bottles 1898

Glass was in use during the Roman times, but was rare and expensive. The Romans even used cork occasionally to seal such containers, but with the collapse of the empire the technology wouldn’t be rediscovered until the late 1600s. The second time around its advantages were so obvious that the marriage of bottle & cork continues to enjoy a passionate relationship to this day.

Fact is, without a wine bottle sealed with an almost airtight closure, wine couldn’t age or blossom into something greater than its original self. During the long history of wine production – some 9,000 years – the libation had to be enjoyed within a year of its production. If it weren’t, it would quickly be consumed by a variety of nasty bacteria rather than thirsty humans. “Drink up” had a very real meaning in the good old days. The stuff tasted terrible after a year or two of exposure to air.

When the bottle was first widely adopted, it was used mainly to convey wine from the cask to the table. Its shape was similar to a large light bulb with a flat bottom. During its evolution it was first known as the “globe and spike” and then the “onion,” rather perfect descriptions of their actual shapes. Over time, the bulbous shape was drawn out and made thinner and longer to enhance the storage capability of the bottles.

Early versions of wine bottles produced in Italy were quite fragile and thus wrapped in straw, wicker or leather baskets to protect them during shipping. The word “fiasco” in Italian means flask or bottle, but it morphed into “failure” when cheap glass was used, resulting in breakage. Truly, a real fiasco.

Tradition Rules

The wine bottle is so laden with tradition that some of its features are still uselessly built into the design. For example, the “punt,” or indented part of the bottom of each bottle, was originally where the blowpipe was attached to the molten glass during its production. As a glassmaker finished each bottle, he spun it and indented the hot glass to disengage his pipe from the vessel. This created a firm base and an area where sediment could be captured.

Today, there is no significant reason for the punt’s existence other than the traditional look it provides a wine bottle. In fact, some informal wine tastings have revealed that the deeper the punt the higher the quality wine contained therein (warning: use caution taking this advice to the bank, uh, wine shop).

The most likely reason for this trait is because winemakers who charge more for their product want to be certain consumers “feel” they are getting their money’s worth. In other words, if you have deep pockets you get deep punts. Wink.

Another feature of the modern bottle that dates to around 300 years ago is the capsule. This is the tin sleeve at the top of each bottle. Its origins was born out of necessity when uncapped bottles were exposed to weevils and rodents that ate their way through the corks in dank cellars, exposing the wine to damaging oxygen. The capsule was a protective measure and surely irritated a host of little critters intent on living off of the tasty cork. Today, the only purpose the capsule serves is cosmetic. It makes the finished product look … er, finished.

There’s no date certain when folks actually began sticking a cork in a wine bottle. The late 1600s seems to be when it began gaining wider acceptance in the marketplace. Nonetheless, in 1598 Shakespeare penned the following words for Rosalind in his play As you Like It: “I pray thee take thy cork out of thy mouth, that I may drink thy tidings.” Clearly, even then the cork was being inserted in other openings than just the mouth. We’ll assume it included wine bottles.

wine bottles

Photo by John Hagarty

Name That Bottle

Perhaps one of the more fascinating pieces of bottle lore was the naming many of the various sized bottles for biblical characters. To this day the historical names are still in use. A “Jeroboam,” named after the First King of Northern Kingdom, contains three liters. Other names employed for obscure reasons were Methuselah, Mordechai, Salmanazar, Balthazar and Nebuchadnezzar.

The 11th bottle in the long list is appropriately called Solomon, the King of Israel, Son of David. And it would be a decision worthy of Solomon to consume its contents in one sitting since it holds 20 liters of the transformed grape.

Over the centuries, the shapes of wine bottles have evolved into four basic sizes, each containing 750 milliliters or 25.6 ounces.

Bordeaux: straight-sided and high shouldered with a pronounced punt. Normally used for reds, except Pinot Noir.

Burgundy: fuller bodied with sloping shoulders. Many whites and one red call these bottles home, especially Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Rhine or Hock: Tall, narrow and with a flat bottom. German Rieslings and many off-dry wines are housed in these sleek vessels.

Champagne: Thick-walled and wide with a deep, pronounced punt and sloping shoulder.  These bottles must be sturdy to withstand the pressure of the naturally carbonated liquid. An unimpeded cork leaving a champagne bottle is traveling at over 50 mph.

So, with over 300 years of history bottled up in the traditional wine receptacle, can we expect it to endure for centuries more? Not necessarily. Even as we peacefully sip our Sauvignon Blanc, creative minds are planning a possible overthrow of the glass bottle.

A small but growing segment of producers is beginning to use plastic. The weight of such bottles are dramatically less than glass and are cheaper to make and ship, taking up to 20% less storage space.

The bag-in-the-box technology is also advancing with sleeker, more attractive packaging designs catching the eye of younger consumers. And there is Tetra Pak technology, used in packaging soymilk and chicken stock, which some vintners are also eyeing. Many of these innovative materials can also be shaped into square containers, just like milk, enhancing storage and shipping capabilities.

But hey, wait a minute. Didn’t somebody already think of the square wine container back in the 1600s?

Hmmmm…what goes around comes around.

John Hagarty works at Rappahannock Cellars in Huntly, VA. Visit him at Hagarty-on-wine.com.

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