Sunday March 17, 2013
A fine fit
Uncorekd by EDWIN SOON
A wine bottle is perfectly designed for its function.
EVER wonder why wine is always served in a glass bottle and not a plastic or aluminium one? Why not a material that’s non-breakable?
Here’s why. Firstly, whatever contains wine must be an inert material and corrosion-resistant to the acids in alcohol. The container should also prevent light from spoiling the wine. Not only that, the container must also be strong enough to withstand the pressure within (think Champagne bottle).
Lastly, wine bottles are made of glass because this material is easily shaped. Alcohol bottles come in all shapes and sizes – from a fat, sturdy fortified wine bottle to the gentle curves of a Burgundy bottle.
Some say the discovery of glass may be attributed to Phoenician sailors cooking on a sandy beach. When the sand beneath their campfire melted and cooled, hardened glass appeared.
By 1AD, the Syrians had developed glass-blowing. The first bottles were “onion-shaped” – round, squat and with a short conical neck. A glass ring was positioned at the end of the neck, below which a string was tied to hold the cork down.
In time, the bottles were tinted black, then green, to protect the wine inside from ultraviolet light and also for the buyer to view the bottle contents.
The first winemakers are thought to be the Georgians in 7,000BC. Wine-making spread from Egypt to Mesopotamia, then to Greece, and finally to Italy.
In 1BC, the Italian Campanien merchants from Naples were the first to introduce wines to the French. It’s interesting to note that most of the wines were transported then in wooden barrels, not glass containers.
When the French began making wines, the storage vessel remained wooden barrels. Even by the 12th century, when the French exported wines, wooden casks were used. The wines made had to be consumed as early as possible as they did not remain “fresh” for more than a few months, turning into vinegar after a season was over.
It was not until the marriage of d’Alienor d’Aquitaine (former wife of Louis VII) to Henri Plantagenet, future King of England, that France and England were united. During this time, “new” drinks such as coffee, tea, chocolate and Spanish wines replaced French wines in popularity. Thus, the French wine industry languished.
To revive the sales of French wines, English importers and merchants worked closely with producers in France to “repackage” the traditional format of the bulk wine in barrels into glass bottles. And the modern “stackable” bottle came into being!
In the 16th century, George Ravenscroft of England discovered lead crystal.
In 1821, the English manufacturer Ricketts patented a machine that could mould bottles into a uniform size and shape. And by 1894, French Cognac glassmaker Boucher perfected a machine that enabled glass to be produced in great quantities.
Earlier, we touched on the varying shapes and sizes of today’s wine bottles. The reason for this is simple.
Every region in France adopted a unique bottle shape to denote wines from the individual regions. This was done so that drinkers, even without looking at the wine label, would be able to tell what wines they were drinking. Today, the shapes continue to provide indication of the type of wine styles. Even among New World wines, winemakers continue to adhere to certain silhouettes in bottles when making similar styled wines.
Pick up a generic Bordeaux wine and you’ll notice a bottle with a high shoulder. Look for another bottle with a similar shape. Chances are you’ll be holding a US or Australian Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot wine. What they share is the same generic Bordeaux-style wine, made only with different varietals.
The same applies to bottles containing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines from the New World. The bottles are similarly styled to those containing Burgundy wines. Such wines are found in bottles with a sloping shoulder and of a slightly larger diameter.
Beyond the container
Bottles serve as more than just containers for wine. As wine ages in the bottle, tannins in the wine agglomerate and form sediment – the wine gets a smoother texture. One reason Bordeaux bottles (always stored on their side) have a high shoulder is the sediment is easy dislodged. Hence, once Bordeaux is ready to be poured, it is simply placed upright, and sediment settles to the bottom of the bottle.
In contrast, Burgundian and Rhone wines come in bottles with gentler shoulders. This is because sediment usually sticks to the side of the cellared bottle so a high shoulder to trap the sediment is not necessary.
Lastly, you might notice that many bottles containing premium wine also often come with a punt in the base. This allows the sediment to settle when the bottle is laid upright. This aids pouring, allowing the shoulders of bottles to “catch” sediment, so that a relatively clear wine is served.
Now how perfect is that!
Bottle colours can also be used to identify wines – with German Riesling bottles, it is interesting to note that, usually, Rhine Rieslings come in brown coloured bottles, while Mosel Rieslings come in green ones.
n Edwin Soon is a qualified oenologist and has run wine shops and worked as a winemaker in various countries. He now writes and teaches about wine around Asia.