The Ubiquitous Wine Bottle

By Posted on Oct 01 2010 | By

Billions Are used Annually  but Humble Vessel has Fascinating Past

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.

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 would not be rediscovered until the 1600s.  The second time around its advantages was 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 could not 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 in a year of its production.  If it wasn’t, it would be quickly 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 so.

Wine Bottles---Then & Now

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 resulted in wine bottle 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 its 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’s no significant reason for the punt’s existence other than the traditional look it provides a wine bottle.  Interestingly, one wine analysis revealed that the deeper the punt the higher the quality of wine (caution: don’t faithfully take this advice to the bank, uh, wine shop.  It was only one study).  But if it’s true, most likely the reason is that winemakers who charge big bucks for their product want to  consumers “feel” they are getting their money’s worth.  In other words, the deeper your pockets the deeper the punts.

Another feature of the modern bottle that dates to three hundred 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 is 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.

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 eleventh 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—or 676 ounces—of the transformed grape.

Happiness Spent!

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 three hundred 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 are beginning to use plastic.  The weight of such containers 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 soy milk and chicken stock—that 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.

Published in the Culpeper Times.

Categories : WINE ARTICLES