A history of the wine bottle

Sensuous mouth, slender neck, graceful shoulders, sleek body, a lovely punt. The wine bottle. It’s an elegant package indeed. United States glass manufacturers alone will ship over 2 billion wine bottles this year, according to the Glass Packaging Institute. And that’s nothing; Italy and France each produce about double the amount of wine that American wineries do. It all amounts to a lot of glass. Especially considering that it wasn’t until the 20th century that wine packaged in bottles even appeared on retailers’ shelves...

Sensuous mouth, slender neck, graceful shoulders, sleek body, a lovely punt. The wine bottle. It’s an elegant package indeed.

United States glass manufacturers alone will ship over 2 billion wine bottles this year, according to the Glass Packaging Institute. And that’s nothing; Italy and France each produce about double the amount of wine that American wineries do.

It all amounts to a lot of glass. Especially considering that it wasn’t until the 20th century that wine packaged in bottles even appeared on retailers’ shelves, thanks to the development of fully automated bottle making and filling equipment.

For centuries it was actually illegal to sell wine in the bottle. There were so many different bottle types—and volume variations—that it was far too easy to cheat. Honest merchants measured out wine from their barrels into containers that customers supplied themselves.

Every aspect of the wine bottle’s journey through history—from the slope of the shoulder to the point of the punt—has been shaped by centuries of marketing, tradition and technology. In fact, the bottles’ designs—from papal crowns to antic monkeys—were ancient marketing gimmicks designed to help a wine stand out.

The big breakthroughs in developing the modern wine bottle were due to a 17th century war and the genius of a notorious pirate. “Up until the 17th century the glass bottle was pretty much a luxury item,” says Curtis Phillips, senior technical editor of Wine Business Monthly.

Wine bottles were for centuries very expensive items, handcrafted by artisans. Kings, noble families and wealthy merchants had elaborate bottles made to order, often embossed with their coat of arms. This was especially true in non-wine-drinking countries like Holland and England, where commoners drank beer and cider, notes Phillips. Only the gentry could afford wine, and the fancy bottle was a way to flout it.

It’s no accident that many technical advances in wine bottle production came from England. Although it made no wine of its own, Great Britain claimed a far-flung empire and controlled many wine regions around the world. Early glass-making furnaces were fired by wood or charcoal. But in 1615, King James I decreed that English forests were better employed carved into warships to keep the Empire safe. So, manufacturers turned to coal, which burned hotter and produced stronger glass.

But it’s Sir Kenelm Digby who’s most often cited as “the father of the modern bottle.” The controversial adventurer, privateer and alchemist was most notorious for a royal love affair—and faking his own death to extricate himself from it. Among his many deeds, the English knight turned sand into gold by adding some secret ingredients, metals and oxides, and using a blower system to get the fire even hotter. His new formula produced glass bottles that were stronger, thicker, darker—and cheaper. Digby’s darker glass was also better for the wine, protecting it against ultraviolet rays.

Bubbly Champagne wasn’t even possible until Digby’s development of thick-walled bottles. “There are references to wines that sparkled in Roman times but back then they had no good way to package it, no way to keep the bubbles contained,” notes Gladys Horiuchi of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, an advocacy group for California wineries.

To this day Champagne bottles employ deep and thick punts against the sparkler’s high internal pressure. The punt is that conical depression in the bottom of most wine bottles, and opinions are divided on its purpose. One theory suggests that the punt made it easier for artisans to handle the hot glass. Another posits that it helps catch sediment. “The punt strengthens the bottle where it needs it most,” because the bottom is the weakest part of the structure, states Joe Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute. Certainly, a punt makes it easier for a server or sommelier to pour with thumb in the crevice and one hand behind the back.

The next technical innovation came in the mid-1800s, and once again the British led the charge. Manu­facturers slimmed down the bottle’s then-common bulbous shape and straightened the sides into what is now called the Bordeaux-type. The English loved their claret—as they called Bordeaux—and claret loved bottle age. The new configuration allowed the wine to be laid down on its sides, or “binned,” keeping the cork wet and tight. The high shoulders aided in decanting.

Another English infatuation, Port, was laid down in a similar bottle, but with a bulge at the neck to catch the sludge that aged vintages throw off.

As for the other bottle shapes that sprang up, “that was just marketing” to differentiate each region’s wine, says Phillips. Burgundy developed its own distinctive sloped-shoulder bottle. Germany evolved the long, tapered “flute” style for its “hock.” Rhine Rieslings were bottled (still are) in brown flutes, while across the river, Mosel comes in a green-tinted package.

South of the Rhone River, Chateau­neuf-du-Pape producers flaunted their celestial connections with an emblem embossed on the bottle neck: the papal crown surmounting St. Peter’s keys to heaven. Local negociants (merchants who buy and blend wine under their own label) were allowed to market their blends with the emblem, except with crown and keys reversed. In Baden, winemakers in the Affental (which translates as “monkey valley”) region sell their wine in bottles embossed with (must you ask?) monkeys. Also in Germany, some Rheingau producers got permission for the marketing gimmick of flutes stamped with double Roman arches (referring to the region’s Roman heritage).

Some strictly regional bottle shapes still linger today. In Franken, Germany, wine still comes in the squat bocksbeutel. The roses of Provence are famous for the hour-glass skittle. And Jura’s vin jaune shows its colors in the 62-cl clavelin: the size, says wine lore, is because that is the amount remaining from a liter after six years of barrel aging has evaporated much of the sweet elixir.

Even today many New World producers keep to some of these ancient traditions, putting California cabs and merlots in Bordeaux-style bottles, for example.

Why? Marketing, of course. And prestige. “The bottle shape says, ‘My wine is identified with that great wine back in the Old World,’ ” says Phillips.

That’s why traditional Burgundy grapes like chardonnay and pinot noir still find their way to shelves in Burgundy-style bottles—even though they might be grown in Chile or South Africa. And though the Aussies changed the grape’s name, they still package their shiraz in the same northern Rhone-type bottles as French syrahs.

Many customers do apparently judge wines by the package. The shape and color of the bottle, the snazzy label, and even, perhaps, some neck dangler (one Italian firm ships its wines with a plastic rooster attached to the bottle with a string) are all part of the buying decision.

“Wine companies don’t spend a fraction of the dollars other beverage producers spend on print and broadcast advertising,” Phillips explains. “Instead, they grab the customers from the shelf. The packaging—bottle, label, foil—is a significant chunk of the marketing spend for wine.”

In 2006, some marketers are thinking outside the bottle. Bag-in-box and aseptic packaging is now used for everyday-type wines, especially in Europe. But it isn’t too widely accepted here in the United States for quality labels—at least not yet.

“I think that glass bottles will continue to portray a premium image for wine,” says the admittedly biased Cattaneo of the Glass Packaging Institute. “Wine can sell at a higher price because of the glass bottle rather than a box or can.”

Of course, that hasn’t stopped at least one Napa Valley winemaker from releasing a premium sparkler in a 187ml can. The pink cans come in a four-pack complete with straws.

Whatever would Sir Digby have to say about that?                       

Sizing up the Vessels

Well into the middle of the 20th century, there was no standard size for wine bottles. Not until 1979, as part of a push to establish the metric system, did the United States government decree that wine bottles must contain 750 ml of vino. Quickly enough, producers in wine-growing regions around the world adopted the 750-ml standard to facilitate exports to the lucrative U.S. market.

Size does matter. Wine matures more slowly in larger bottles. That’s one reason why there are a number of giant-sized bottles. For time-obscured reasons, many of these imperial sizes are named for Biblical rulers, like the wicked king Nebuchadnezzar, whose royal bottle equals the juice of 20 standard ones.

The Cork and the Screw

The cork and corkscrew developed in tandem with the bottle, becoming commonplace by the early 1700s. Cork, made from tree bark, was the perfect material, compressible enough to be forced into the neck easily, yet elastic to expand for a tight fit. That’s where the argument ended for centuries.

But cork isn’t perfect. Variations in a bottle’s neck can make for a flawed fit. And, if it isn’t kept moist, the cork can dry out, loosen and ruin the wine in the bottle. In recent years, experts began tracking another problem with the closure: so-called “cork taint,” identified by a musty, moldy off-odor.

The main culprit appears to be 2,4,6 trichloroanisole, or TCA. Cork producers say they’re working to eradicate the problem, which is sometimes caused by the cork-bleaching process. But as much as 2 to 10 percent of bottles sealed with the natural plug are “corked,” according to some statistics.

So, the venerable cork is getting some rethinking. Composite and plastic corks are closing in on Portuguese bark. And a few producers are experimenting with crown caps, like those used for beer. But it seems the eventual winner, both in efficiency and ease of use, will be the screwtop. “Studies have shown the screwtop preserves the integrity of the wine better,” says Joe Cattaneo, president of the Glass Packaging Institute.

Invented in 1889 by Englishman Dan Rylands, the screwtop was first used on whiskey bottles. In the 1950s, the long-skirted Stelvin screwtop was developed specifically for wine. The wine industry was not quick to embrace the alternative. It wasn’t until 1977 that some adventurous Australian vintners released commercial bottlings with the closure. The next year, a few prestigious Bordeaux houses, notably Haut-Brion, experimented with screwtops on some bottles destined for restaurants. Decades later, in 2000, Napa star Plumpjack decided to release its top wine, the ’97 Reserve Cabernet, with a screwtop. Interestingly, the winery charged a $10 premium over the cork-finished version.

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