Why are wine bottles the shape and size they are?

Have you ever wondered why wine bottles come in all shapes and sizes, or why a standard wine bottle is 750ml?  And while the bottle shape and size doesn’t make a difference in terms of impacting the wine’s flavour, the bottle chosen does often represent a good amount of history and tradition that reflects back to where the wine was made.

All standard wine bottles are 750ml in size which is roughly the average exhalation volume of the human lungs (in the context of glassblowing). Thus, it was the most common size when bottles were all made by human glassblowers – a tradition that has persisted into today’s regulated market. Specialist glassblowers were required to blow larger format bottles – magnums for instance.

While there are hundreds of differently shaped bottles in the world the same three basic forms do come up again and again - known as the Burgundy, the Bordeaux and the Alsatian or Alsace.

The reason Alsatian and Germanic wine bottles are the classic, tall flute shape is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a matter of economics. The main trade route out of these regions was on smooth-sailing barges along the Rhine. Bottles did not need to be as strong as those from other regions with more strenuous trade routes and thus did not require a punt (that’s the dimple in the bottom of the bottle). The long flute shape was found to be ideal for maximising packing efficiency in crates.

Bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy are stronger, with a traditional punt found in the base, as the bottles had to withstand a rougher journey to their export markets by sea (Bordeaux) or over land (Burgundy). The high shoulder of the Bordeaux bottle is said to capture much of the sediment of these more tannic wines – a feature that is not needed with Burgundy. Wines from Chianti were traditionally carried around by a handle attached to a straw basket secured around the base of the bottle.

What was once a matter of common sense and practicality has now become embedded in tradition – or even law. For example, Alsace AOC white wines must be bottled in the flutes. Bottle shapes have become synonymous with wine styles too. Most New World producers of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer will use the traditional Germanic flutes. Most Chardonnay and Pinot Noir around the world use a Burgundy bottle; similarly, for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines using the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle.

There is a reason for everything!

The Burgundy Bottle

The first bottle of the big three to become ubiquitous was the Burgundy Bottle. Invented sometime in the nineteenth century, it is thought that the bottle’s curved sides exist simply because this design was easier for glassmakers to create. Following the bottle’s creation, Burgundy producers – the people responsible for making the first wines out of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir – began using the vessels to bottle their red and white Burgundies. Before long, the Burgundy bottle became something of a visual shorthand for light, bright, easy-drinking and juicy wines. Many wines which had the main characteristics of Pinot Noir, but which were made from other grapes altogether, such as Gamay, Nebbiolo and more will still be found in Burgundy-style bottles today. Chardonnays bottled in this way will usually be well oaked, soft and round.

The Bordeaux Bottle

Not to be outdone, almost immediately following the creation of the Burgundy bottle came the famous Bordeaux variety. First used in France’s peerless Bordeaux region in the late 19th century, it became associated with deep, complex and age-worthy red wines featuring Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. What sets the Bordeaux bottle apart from the Burgundy bottle is the bottle’s distinctive shoulders. Most believe these shoulders were created in order to catch the sediment that could often accumulate in old Bordeaux while the bottle was being decanted. However, it hasn’t been confirmed that this is the actual reason the Bordeaux bottle has its distinctive shoulders; many also believe the design could have been simply to set the bottle apart from its Burgundian cousin.

The Alsatian / Alsace Bottle

Finally, the Alsatian/Alsace bottle came into existence shortly after Bordeaux. Originally created for storing Riesling – both dry and sweet – the bottle can now be seen housing similar wines such as Gewurztraminer. The wineries could afford to be more delicate and daring with their bottle design, as unlike the Burgundian and Bordeaux wineries, Alsace bottles were exported on a gentle journey by river barge, not tossed about in the holds of a ship bound for the Atlantic. As with the other bottles, the slender Alsace design has also become deeply associated with wines which fit with the Alsatian style, and yet are from elsewhere in the world.

Regardless of what shape bottle in which your wine happens to come, the most beneficial aspect of all three of these bottle designs is that they allow the bottles to be stored on their side, causing the wine to make contact with the cork, and ensuring a perfect oxygen free seal.

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