The Evolution of Physiology of the Glass Wine Bottle

GrapevineRecently, our family came over for dinner (first time in a long pandemic-time) and we were enjoying one of my wife’s new chicken recipes and a bottle of Austrian Grüner Veltliner.

My granddaughter noticed the wine bottle on the table and asked what was in the bottle.

“Grape juice,” I replied. To which she responded: “But it’s not in a juice box.”

Hmm, inspirations for wine column subjects can come from the least expected sources.

Last week we explored the changing landscape of wine containers. Have you ever wondered how traditional wine bottles evolved to their present-day shape, color and size?

Let’s review three aspects of the physiology of the wine bottle.

Shape. Early Greeks transported wine in amphorae, two-handled ceramic jars with a narrow neck, wide body and pointed bottom. This shape served an additional purpose: an easy pouring spout for filling wine vessels. When glass-blowing became popular in the 16th century, the present-day compact and portable bottle shape began to take form.

When you peruse the wine shelves and racks at your local wine shop, there is a helpful key to identifying the type of wine that is in the bottle, regardless of its region of origin. Think of it as an early-detection system. Here are five of the basic shapes:

First is the Bordeaux-style bottle, distinguished by its straight sides and tall, rounded shoulders. This bottle typically identifies the contents as one of the Bordeaux blended varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec, Carmenere for reds and Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and dessert wines for the whites.

Second is the Burgundy-style bottle, with sloping shoulders and a slightly broader bottom than the Bordeaux bottle. This shape is used for the two prime varietals of the region, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. (The wines of the Loire Valley are also typically bottled in this shape.)

Third is the Rhone-style bottle, with a shape similar to the Burgundy bottle, but with more angular shoulders and a bit slimmer. If a bottle displays a coat of arms on the neck it is specifically from the Rhone subregion of Châteauneuf du Pape. This shape typically indicates Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre or a blend for reds and Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne or a blend for whites.

Fourth is the Champagne-style bottle. Here, invention is the mother of necessity. The walls are much thicker than other bottles and there is a large dimple in the bottom – to control adequately the pressure in the bottle (which is three times greater than the PSI inside a car tire). 

Fifth is the German and Alsatian-style bottle, very distinctive for being taller and narrower than other bottles, and having a very gentle slope to its shoulders. You won’t have any difficulty identifying bottles of Rieslings or Gewürztraminer.

Color. Light can be detrimental to the life and quality of bottled wine. Hence, most bottles of red wine are made of dark green glass and white wine a lighter green – a logical choice since red wines are generally aged longer than whites. A number of German and Italian wines are stored in brown bottles. Many white and dessert wine bottles are made of clear glass, meant to be displayed naturally – and not generally expected to be aged for extended periods.

Size. The standard size (750ml/25.4 ounces) has remained constant since 16th century glassblowers first began producing bottles. As legend has it, the volume capacity of today’s bottle was a direct function of the glassblower’s lung capacity to blow a single bottle. Larger bottles range in size from magnums (equivalent to two bottles) to bottles with Biblical references: Methuselah (eight bottles), Salmanazer (12 bottles), Nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles) and Goliath (a whopping 36 bottles).

The Old World practicality that dictated the shape, size and color of wine bottles is not as compelling today. Several alternative formats are making inroads in the marketplace, including Tetra Paks (juice boxes), paper and aluminum, in standard and single-serve containers.

Who knows, I may soon be sharing a juice box format with my granddaughter.

Nick Antonaccio is a 45-year Pleasantville resident. For over 25 years, he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member and program director of the Wine Media Guild of wine journalists. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at nantonaccio@theexaminernews.com or on Twitter @sharingwine.

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