WINE SAVVY: Anatomy of a wine bottle
You can judge a wine by its bottle, and it's one of the easiest ways to determine how the wine was made.
There are three basic wine bottle shapes: tall, skinny, brown or green German bottles; sloped-shouldered, fat-bottomed Burgundian bottles; and tall, high-shouldered Bordeaux bottles.
In Germany, bottles colored green or brown denote the growing region. Traditionally, brown bottles contain wine from the Rhine river, and green bottles contain wine from the Mosel. Blue bottles became popular in the 1980s and can be from any region.
The color rule is only followed by traditionalists. If you're buying a riesling that is made from outside Germany — such as one from Washington state — and the bottle looks like a German bottle, then you can assume the winemaker is trying to follow in the tradition of sweetish, high acid, German rieslings.
Because of their shape, German bottles contain less glass and are generally thought to be lighter when compared to French Burgundy or Bordeaux bottles. One explanation for this is that the Germans could put their wines directly onto a river where the voyage was more gentle rather than the wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux which had to travel overland. This concept sounds logical, but the Burgundians and Bordelais had plenty of access to river, canal and sea transport and I'm sure most of their wines traveled via France's excellent network of canals.
The only logical explanation for why French bottles are thicker and sturdier is simply tradition. Wine was first bottled more than three centuries ago, and each region developed its own particular shape. One thing that did emerge was a consistent volume: 750ml / 25 ounces of wine. The exact reason why this size became the most prominent is lost to history. According to the Oxford Companion of Wine, the "standard" size was perhaps a lungful of air, harkening back to when bottles were manually blown by glassblowers rather than cast by machines as they are made today. Eventually, EU rules in the 1970s set this size as the standard.
Burgundy and Bordeaux bottles both have a reinforcing indentation on the bottom of the bottle. This is known as a punt. Again we see the influence of the glassblower. The indentation made the bottle stronger and created a spot for the blowing rod to be broken from the glass. This spot was rough and sharp and unless ground down, it could scar a table. By indenting the bottom, the bottle received a smooth bottom, and tables worldwide went unmarred.
The Bordeaux blends of merlot and cabernet sauvignon can give off quite a bit of sediment and the bottle's punt can help collect this when the wine is set upright before service. The tall high shoulders of a Bordeaux bottle also help keep the sediment in the bottle when the wine is carefully poured. Burgundian bottles with their sloped shoulders and fat bottoms were easier for glass blowers to make, and wine made from chardonnay and pinot noir — Burgundy's primary grapes — don't cast sediments.
Wine bottles from different parts of the world are all slightly different. Some have raised lettering, some have clear glass, some have high shoulders that taper like the fine cut of a tuxedo, some have longer necks and fatter bottoms. But in the end, they are all variations of the three primary bottle shapes: German, Bordeaux and Burgundy.
For better or for worse, the shapes cannot tell us anything about the quality of what's inside, but they can tell us about the tradition that influenced winemakers when they filled their bottles.