The shape of wine

Winemaking is an old art – it began even before any form of writing existed ever since a long forgotten tribe pressed grapes in a cave in the Caucasus more than 6,000 years ago. Spreading from there across the Mediterranean via the Phoenicians, Greeks and Romans and through Northern Europe, following major rivers eventually reaching the Americas from Spain, wine has enjoyed a long, rich history. Less often told is the story of the vessels in which the wine was stored and served – the forerunner of today’s all too familiar wine bottle.

Archeological excavations in the southern Georgian region, where winemaking began, indicate that large egg-shaped earthenware vessels, called Qvevri, were utilized by the ancient winemakers to ferment and store their product. Later, Egyptians and Greeks introduced clay containers called Amphora. Amphoras featured a peculiar pointed base which allowed the vessels to be stored upright by embedding them in sand. They were used in vast numbers all over the Mediterranean for both the transportation and the storage of wine.

When the Romans developed the glass blowing technique, they quickly found glass to be a better medium for storing wine. Glass preserved the flavor and more importantly, the clarity and color of the wine could readily be seen. Easier to blow, these earliest bottles were onion shaped and varied greatly in size. And because of these variations in size, discerning consumers were forced to bring their own measuring jugs to ensure that they were not shorted on the purchase! It wasn’t until much later in the sixteenth century that flatter and longer bottle became to be favored, as it was better suited for storing wine on its side, allowing the cork to be in contact with the wine.

The first “real wine bottle” was introduced by an Englishman, Sir Kenelm Digby in 1652. His version of the wine bottle went through many stages of improvement in the following half a century, both in terms of its shape for stability and the material used in its manufacture. With growing industrialization, the 1900’s ushered in mechanized bottle production, with a convenient size we would recognize today varying between 700 – 800 ml. But it wasn’t until 1979 that a truly standard 750 ml bottle was agreed upon by the industry on both sides of the Atlantic.

Today, the wine bottle is not just a container to hold our wine. It has evolved into something sleek and elegantly labeled, identifying the varietal, the vineyard, the date and the alcohol content. Usually artistically designed, sometimes beautifully embossed, it has become almost an artwork in and of itself. The shape of the bottle even conveys the origin of the grapes that went into the wine: Bottles with high shoulders and long slender necks are for wines that originate in the Bordeaux region of France, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Malbec. Bottles with the longer sloping shoulders are designed for wines that originate in the Burgundy region of France. These include Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Riesling and Gewürztraminer, on the other hand, are bottled in a very tall and slender bottle known as Hock, which is a British term for the region of Germany where these varietals are grown.