Shapes Serve a Purpose…or Do They?
Senior Staff Writer: Les Noteworthy
Even as a kid, I noticed that different types of wine came in different shaped bottles. I never really cared enough to wonder why, because as a kid, I couldn’t drink the stuff. As a teen I helped a family friend produce and bottle his homemade “Dago Red” that graced the family table at every meal forever.
Mostly, he would use the over sized jug wine bottles, collected from myriad sources and reserved for his juice. Clearly the shape of the wine bottles he used was of no concern to him.
As an adult (and of course later as a Certified Sommelier), I once again became aware of different bottle shapes. I was fortunate to have worked on some underwater salvage projects where numerous bottles from the 16th through the early 19th century were recovered. Amongst these were square bottomed Dutch gin and rum bottles, onion bottles (literally shaped like an onion), and many more. While researching the finds, I learned a great deal about glass making, bottle making and shaping. In those days, all glass vessels were hand blown. Most used in general consumption were blown into molds made from wood, while personal bottles, used for longer-term storage and / or decorative purposes were free-blown, without any mold to help shape the bottle. This type of bottle is still created today in glass studios.
Most glass then appeared “black”, although in reality they were a very dark green that really looked black. This was due to the impurities and minerals contained in the silica used in the glass making processes of the time. As chemistry and refining techniques improved, the clarity and colors improved, as we all know. Clear glass, although in evidence in ancient Roman vessels, rarely existed in common glass production. It was simply too expensive. So where am I headed with all of this bottle history? Well, I’m headed to France, in the mid-1800′s, to be specific, because it was in France where the bottle making standards and shapes for the world were finally set, and they are still in place today.
Perhaps the largest wine producing nation in the world, certainly then and arguably now; France was and is divided into two principal regions. Bordeaux and Burgundy. Bordeaux, located in the Western Central part of France was active in the wine trade for centuries. References exist as early as the days of Columbus as to the fine quality of Bordeaux wines. In 1855, when the classification of wines took place for the Medoc, Bordeaux wines were considered by many as the best in the world. The half dozen (or so) bottle makers in the region were molding common shaped bottles.
Finally the idea was hatched to elongate the body ever so slightly, so as to modify its appearance from the average rum or porter bottle of the day, which looked a lot like a Drambuie bottle. The high-shoulder was created in the design to retain sediment, which was all too common in wines from that region and era. Bottles differed slightly from bottle maker to bottle maker, but there weren’t that many of them, so it didn’t take long for the “look” to become very similar across the board. The long, thin, high-shouldered bottle with a differentiated neck soon identified Bordeaux wines. Now, of course, we’re thinking red wine, right? What about the whites of the region? Well, they too became bottled in the same shaped vessel. Initially, they were bottled in the dark, black glass of the period, but as time went by and clear glass became affordable, the white wines of the region opted for the clear glass. This was primarily because white wine is not as effected by exposure to direct sunlight as is red wine, and also so that the consumer could see the difference. Brilliant!
Today, worldwide production of any grape that draws its origin from Bordeaux, i.e. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle, and any blends of any of these grapes, such as red or white meritage, are bottled into the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle.
The other large and well-respected growing region of France was Burgundy, which had been producing superb wines, documented even as far back as the Holy Roman Empire. Different soil, different climate, different grape varietals and guess what, a different shaped bottle. Why? History leads us towards to the answer, not just idiosynchronicity. In bottle terminology, the Burgundy bottle is referred to as a soft-shouldered bottle. The grapes of Burgundy produced what were thought to be softer wines when compared to the sturdier, more structurally tannic Bordeaux. Additionally, Burgundy couldn’t command the prices that the great Bordeaux wines were receiving. Since soft-shouldered bottles are easier and cheaper to produce, the wine makers opted for the obvious move… keep the cost down, sell for less, and make just as much profit. As the 19th century gave way to the industrialization of the 20th century, cheaper was better, even when it came to great French wines. Hey, it worked!
Today, those varietals tracing their roots to the rich soils of Burgundy continue to be bottled in the traditional soft-shouldered bottles. Those grapes are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Most Rhone varietals, Syrah, Grenache, Cote du Rhone blends and Chateauneuf-du-Papes are also bottled in the same shaped bottle. The reason was initially thought to be proximity of regions and style of wines, softer than the great Bordeaux wines, but a specific and definitive answer is lost in history.
So what did we learn from this historical dissertation? If somebody orders a Chassagne-Montrachet, they’ve requested a high end white Burgundy. The white grape of Burgundy is Chardonnay (exclusively). It will be contained in a chardonnay looking bottle…. same shape as Kendall-Jackson’s juice, with a different price point and pedigree of course.
Today we have two main bottle shapes, although a third, taller version does exist and is used mostly in Alsatian and German varietals. The two are still high-shouldered and soft-shouldered, used in red and white production. High shouldered are Bordeaux, soft-shouldered are Burgundies. They both contain the same volume of wine, standardized today at 750ml for the ordinary bottle. Both shapes are produced in larger and smaller volume bottles (magnum, half-bottles), but with the same shapes, dependent upon the varietal.
Lastly, wine makers of today have been creating their own unique shaped wine bottles, making their individual products more easily recognizable. Another gimmick is to make bottles that are thicker and usually heavier than average to again bring more attention to their products. The first one that comes to mind is Altamura Sangiovese. If you have ever seen these bottles, especially of an earlier vintage, they are uniquely shaped…taller than average if you will. Rules are meant to be stretched, if not broken…especially when it comes to shaping wine bottles of today, not unlike the adventurous, ever-changing approach to wine making itself!.
So I ask you… will the overall shape of wine bottles to come change dramatically again, or is this it? The different shapes of the stemware used to drink wines from specific bottles is another story entirely…so stay tuned! Cheers!