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,
LUSCIOUS LITTLE BOTTLES
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
NO MATTER WHAT SHAPE
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.
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.
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
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.
OF COURSE SIZE
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 E B
O T T L E S I Z E S and D
E S I G N A T I O N S
Split, Single Serving
(referred to as a "Split" in Australia, England, and New Zealand)
Jeroboam (sparkling wine ONLY)
liter / 5 liter
/ six + two thirds bottles
Jeroboam (burgundy shape)
Magnum (claret shape)
Methuselah (sparkling or burgundy shape)
bottles (one "case")
12 liter to 16 liter
sixteen to twenty bottles
to 112 +
||twenty four bottles
Size depends upon producer and origin
@ 6 oz.
Some additional regionally-specific sizes are unlisted because they are not widely distributed.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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.
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.]
BLADDER OF PINOT, PLEASE!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Wine Labels is a series of five articles elsewhere on this site.