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Wine Packaging

Commercially traded wine containers have evolved over thousands of years from primitive goatskins and earthen jars to modern polyethylene bag-in-box and glass bottles. Although relatively heavy and fragile, glass has long held the distinct advantages for wine packaging of being both chemically inert, preventing contamination, and impervious to oxygen, preventing spoilage.

Historical credit for invention of glass blowing goes to the Romans, although glass was essentially a luxury item for centuries. The oldest wine bottle ever found has been dated to 321 A.D. In 1821, an English company patented a machine to mold bottles that were uniform in size and shape. Selling wine already bottled, however, was illegal in England until 1860, due to both the political influence of pub owners and the lack of both labeling standards and means of authenticating the fill volume.

Wine was sold by the measure and bottled after the sale, with the customer providing their own bottles, often identified with a personal seal. Alois Senefelder, a German actor and playwright frustrated by printing costs, invented "stone printing" in 1796. Popularly known later as lithography, the process revolutionized printing economy and made mass-labeling of consumer products (wine among them) practical. Simple paper labels identifying the contents, usually by type only, began in the early 1800s in Germany; printed wine labels for widespread commercial application came after 1860.

Cammelino bottle.NO MATTER WHAT SHAPE
Shapes for wine bottles evolve primarily from area tradition. There are "classic" shapes in general use by the majority of producers from any given area and "modern" shapes that are essentially more "artsy" variations of the classics.

Although Old World wine producers rely heavily upon tradition to select their bottles, there are no appellation laws dictating bottle shape. It mostly is a matter of precedent and personal taste. Some marketing groups insist on particular bottle shapes and even sometimes offer a proprietary bottle mold to share with the membership, an expense that only the most well-financed estates would undertake on their own. These sometimes include a crest, coat-of-arms, or other design. There are also proprietary bottle molds owned by the glass company, rather than the producer. Italians seem to have the most variations, such as the tall bottles of fanciful shapes that sometimes hold Chianti, or the "fish" bottle of Verdicchio.

Classic bottle shapes.There are really three basic shapes in general commercial use; all other bottles are variations. The burgundy profile, for example, is slope-shouldered and used for both red, pink, and white wines. Bottles used for wines in Chablis, the Loire, and the Rhone are quite similarly shaped. Champagne uses a bottle that is made of thicker glass and includes a wide ring at the neck to hold the cage in place, et essentially the same profile. The flute, riesling, or hock bottle is also slope-shouldered, but taller, narrower, more drawn out. It is used almost exclusively for white or pink wines. The Bordeaux or claret bottle has some practicality to its design; the more distinct shoulder can serve as a catch basin for sediment when decanting.

There are also fairly wide variations in glass colors, from crystal clear through various shades of green and brown to nearly opaque, occasionally some blue as well. Light, whether natural or artificial, speeds wine spoilage. Darker bottle colors and certain shades protect wine from light, but producers generally select glass color based upon packaging appeal, rather than solar security.

Every bottle has a bottom that may be either flat or "punted". The punt evolved as a pushed-up section of varying depth in the center of the bottom. This indentation was formed as a "handle" for glass blowers to turn their creation. So that bottles could stand upright, it was much easier to form an even plane by pushing up on the center of the bottom, rather than turning one that was perfectly flat. The punt forms a handle for Champagne riddlers and strengthens and spreads the pressure over more surface area to prevent sparkling wine bottles from bursting. Although they are more aesthetic than functional on still wine bottles, punts may serve as convenient thumb handles for strong-wristed servers and also help somewhat to direct deposits of sediment as bottles age. The punted bottle, by rendering the shape taller or wider, also gives the illusory impression that it contains more than a flat bottom bottle; it doesn't.

Every bottle also has a neck where the bottle narrows and the cork is inserted to seal the contents. On the classic shapes, necks vary slightly in length. For most American consumers, this is inconsequential, since 95% of all wine sold in this country is consumed within 24 hours.

It is, however, an important feature for collectors to observe the bottle neck and its level of fill or "ullage". A high fill is desirable, because this means there is less oxygen trapped in the bottle to hasten spoilage. However, a fill that is too high can be too sensitive to small changes in temperature and be prone to leakage. The condition of older wines can be estimated by ullage.

Some variations will occur, because bottle capacities commonly differ by one percent, equal to a quarter ounce in a standard size bottle, not much, but often observable in the narrow neck. To overcome this, some sophisticated bottling lines actually "visualize" the fill level with light beams, rather than measure the quantity injected.

Until the 1970s, wine bottle sizes varied from about 650 to 850 milliliters, each appellation had their own standard. The European Union established standards that have been adopted worldwide. The "standard size" wine bottle is now 750 milliliters (25.4 U.S. fluid ounces), which the United States adopted, along with the rest of the Metric system, in 1979. One size does not necessarily fit all, however, and so various smaller and larger sizes are often available.

W I N EB O T T L E S I Z E SandD E S I G N A T I O N S

187 milliliters

quarter bottle


Split, Single Serving

375 milliliters

half bottle


Tenth (referred to as a "Split" in Australia, England, and New Zealand)

500 milliliters

two-thirds bottle

3 -

Half Liter

750 milliliters

standard bottle

4 +


1.5 liter

two bottles

8 +


3 liter

four bottles

17 +

Double Magnum,
Jeroboam (sparkling wine ONLY)

4.5 liter / 5 liter

six / six + two thirds bottles

25 / 28

Jeroboam (claret shape)
Jeroboam (burgundy shape)

6 liter

eight bottles


Imperial Magnum (claret shape)
Methuselah (sparkling or burgundy shape)

9 liter

twelve bottles (one "case")

50 +


12 liter

sixteen bottles

67 +


16 liter

twenty bottles

112 +

Nebuchadnezzar (sparkling wines)

± 12 liter to 16 liter

± sixteen to twenty bottles

90 to 112 +

Nebuchadnezzar (table wines)

18 liter twenty four bottles 100 + Melchior
20 liter twenty-six-and-a-half bottles 120 + Solomon
30 liter forty bottles 200 + Melchizedek (sparkling wines)

± Size depends upon producer and origin

* @ 6 oz.

Some additional regionally-specific sizes are unlisted because they are not widely distributed.

(table idea from the Vintage Press wine list)

Larger bottles are not only impressive, festive, and convenient for serving more guests, they are also demonstrably better at preserving the wine and extending the window of drinkability beyond that of smaller bottles. This may occur because the greater volume of wine makes the amount of trapped air, as well as the cork seal, proportionately smaller. Another factor may be that larger volumes of liquid change temperature more slowly and are therefore more resistant to potentially damaging fluctuations.

Large-format bottles are becoming increasingly rare due to glass production cost, weight (increasing transportation costs) and fragility (in spite of their bulk). Those individuals whose wine collecting plans tend to be more mercenary than sensory should keep in mind that rarity increases value.

Keeping wine in the bottle in good condition until consumption is another concern. The dual purposes of any closure for wine are containment and preservation. Wine is sensitive to oxygen and will spoil before it has time to evaporate, so the latter purpose is the more critical. It is, however, much easier to keep wine stoppered with the traditional cork from escaping the bottle than it is to keep air from invading it.

In ancient times, when little was known of wine chemistry (or general hygiene, for that matter), devices such as tightly bundled straw or oil-soaked twisted rags may have been stuffed into bottles to prevent spilling. Although glass bottles appear smooth-surfaced, they are actually imperfect, with shallow "hills and valleys", especially inside the neck, so these closures were only marginally effective for containment and not-at-all for preservation.

Eventually, stoppers made from bark of the cork oak, quercus suber, were discovered to be excellent closures, because of their elasticity and their apparent impenetrability to both moisture and oxygen.

A cork oak is not harvested the first time until it is 50 years old or more. After that virgin harvest, the bark is only taken every eight to twelve years. Trees may live for more than 200 years and are never cut down. It is the only tree species known to regenerate its bark. Forests of cork oaks grow all around the Mediterranean Sea, but the majority of all wine corks come from Portugal, which generates 60% of cork production world-wide.

Cork bark is harvested by hand, using axes, going about halfway up the trunk, below the branches. For eight to twelve months the cork is left to dry and season outdoors. After seasoning, the raw sheets of cork (about 2 feet by four feet) are boiled at fairly high temperatures for 50-75 minutes. This removes tannin, contaminants and impurities and swells the cork. The pieces are allowed to cool and dry somewhat for 2-4 days, then initially graded for thickness, followed by gradings for density and quality. After grading, the material is sent to the appropriate processing facility. Wine corks are punched from the top-graded sheets, then treated with peroxide to remove surface contaminants.

Only about 20-30% of the total harvest is useful for making wine corks. Although more than 70% of cork production by weight is used for other purposes, such as automotive gaskets, sandals, construction materials, and various stoppers of other kinds, more than 70% of cork production value comes from wine corks. This may seem like the producers are over-charging for wine corks, but most wine corks are the "filet" of the cork bark, made from actual whole and unflawed pieces of thick bark that has grown many seasons between harvesting, while most other cork products are made either from the "ground beef" of chopped up and reformed bits and pieces or from sections of thinner, younger bark (lack of meaty comparison notwithstanding).

Corks may be quite good as wine bottle closures, but they are far from perfect. Since corks come from living plants, they are subject to the inconsistent quality of all harvested goods. All corks are not created equal. They suffer the same variety of grain, density, imperfections and susceptibility to defects from disease or boring insects as any wood product.

Cork, much like human skin, loses elasticity and moisture over time and shrinks; for this reason wine closed with cork should be stored laying down, so the cork remains wet. Serious collectors and producers of Port, Bordeaux, and other wines that are candidates for improvement after considerable aging often re-cork their bottles every 10 or 20 years. Some producers of expensive wines even conduct promotional tours around the world to offer this re-corking service to private collectors of their wines.

At the close of the 20th Century, an increasingly-noticed problem in wine corks became contamination by the chemical compound 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, or TCA. A result of the reaction between chlorine used to sterilize and process the corks and a mold that is present in many wood products, TCA produces a distinctive foul, musty, medicinal odor that can ruin wine. This problem is not exclusive to corks; all wood products in wineries are susceptible, including barrels, barrel racks, tanks, walls, scaffolding, shipping pallets, cardboard boxes and containers, etc. Any winery still using bleach as routine disinfectant is at extremely high risk. Both the cork and the wine industries are trying to develop solutions.

Natural cork stoppers have been the traditional seals for fine wines since the 18th Century. Wine consumers enjoy the ritual of carefully removing the cork from a bottle. The industry has long promoted the idea that superior wine comes only in cork-finished bottles and that wine in screwcap or screwtop bottles is inferior.

Wine dogma historically touts "the minute exchange of oxygen that corks allow in order for wines to properly age." Recent research that compared the same wines closed with both corks and screwcaps, going back to the 1997 vintage, has shown that wine will age, with or without oxygen beyond that already dissolved in the liquid or included in the bottle headspace, and that wine in screw-capped bottles will age with both greater consistency and greater safety from spoilage.

The Australian Wine Research Institute tested and compared various wine closures over a total period of 40 months to evaluate their ability to preserve wine. Although the tests are ongoing and incomplete and despite historic idolatry for corks, screwcaps are most likely superior to corks for keeping wine contained and preserved in glass bottles. They have gained increasing acceptance in a very short time with the Australian wine industry, it will probably take much longer for wine consumers of the world to accept them.

[Please pardon the following intrusion of editorial content, but this seems a more fitting spot for it than what would be our normal placement, in the Wrath section.]

Since the primary purposes of any wine containers are to transport, preserve and dispense, the modern pinnacle of wine packaging is, without question, the bag-in-a-box. It is light weight, prevents oxidation of the contents over a reasonably long period of time, even when only partially full, and requires only a pinch to pour (this serving ease may also present a drawback in households with children). The idea that the last glass will taste exactly like the first also seems to favor moderate consumption. Bag-in-box packaging is also easy on the environment, both in terms of energy cost-to-produce and disposal space required, for a lower overall "carbon footprint" than an equal quantity in glass.

For collectors, one drawback is that the bag-in-box is probably not conducive to wine cellaring. Although this contention is purely speculative, I am curious about any research regarding the phenomenon. Any graduate students with the temerity (huevos grandé) to select this as thesis material have my full support, as well as the venal condemnation of wine snobs worldwide.

This brings up the other, primary and undeniable drawback: image. Suffice it to summarize my opinion, that I hope to be the first in line when vintage dated Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir are offered in convenient and economical 5-liter bag-in-box containers. As both the glut of grapes and consumer resistance to wine inflation increase, this may not be merely a wine bibber's pipe dream.

Jim LaMar

In August, 2009, DeLoach Vineyards launched their first 10-liter Bag-in-a-Barrel Pinot Noir.

About Boxed Wine has the answers to all questions, as well as growing lists of wines available in this format, by origin, by varietal, or by brand, including many consumer reviews.

Several premium bag-in-a-box wines are now available; try Bota Box, Blackbox, French Rabbit, or Indulge.

Better Wines, Better World touts the sensory, economic, and environmental advantages of bag-in-the-box wine packaging.

The Peninsula Woodturner's Guild (!?!), from Australia, has a brief and interesting article on the Evolution of Wine Bottle Shapes, complete with diagrams.

Amorim is a cork supplier and the Cork Information Bureau is a marketing group for the wine cork industry. Both sites have lots of detailed and interesting information about corks.

Understanding Wine Labels is a series of five articles elsewhere on this site.

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Page created August 18, 2002; updated December 19, 2015
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