Although it’s probably the last thing that pops into anyone’s mind when choosing something to drink, the glass bottle that cradles your wine has a lot to say about how it was produced. Here’s a quick primer on the form and function of this venerable vessel.
What can the shape of a bottle tell you about the wine?
Most wines end up in one of three bottle shapes: Bordeaux, Burgundy or flute. But is the bottle shape relevant to the wine, or is it just for show?
Wines that were historically tied to a certain bottle are still packaged that way for the most part: Bordeaux in Bordeaux, Burgundy in Burgundy, and German whites in a flute (sometimes called a Mosel, Alsace or Hock bottle). However, as a general rule, grape varieties associated with these regions are also bottled the same way, even when grown in other regions. This means you’ll find Merlot from Chile and Napa bottled in the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle, Pinot Noir from Oregon in the plump-bottomed Burgundy-style bottle, and Finger Lakes Riesling in a tall, skinny flute.
Matching variety to bottle makes sense for producers who seek to communicate as much as possible with a single glance. But with so many more types of wine than bottle shapes, the choice is based frequently on the whim of the winemaker, or the limitations of their bottling facility.
For the winemaker with a grand vision, and the budget to match, a custom bottle might be in order. Though it may not have a direct effect on the wine, customization is a great way to stand out in a saturated market. Consider Joseph Phelps Insignia, a storied Napa Cabernet blend that typically retails for $200. From the raised edges that border the label, the oak leaf insignia stamped just below the shoulder and inside the punt, this bottle screams money and its iconic design is recognizable to many without needing to see the label.
Many vintners differentiate their range of cuvées by housing the better wines in a special bottle. The ability to customize can be a sign of a top-tier or large-production offering, occasionally both.
How are wine bottles made, anyway?
Bottle glass is made by heating together silica sand harvested from dunes, sodium carbonate (also known as soda ash) and limestone. If recycled bottles are utilized, they’re introduced in crushed form, called cullet. In addition to reducing waste, cullet expedites the melting process. That can save a considerable amount of energy, as temperatures during bottle making can eclipse 2,700˚F.
So where do the colors in glass come from and do they benefit the wine?
Color is created with the addition of minerals like iron and cobalt. The classic hue of wine bottles is called “antique green” and is by far the most popular choice among winemakers.
Green bottles help protect the wine from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, though brown glass, standard for beer bottles, is shown to filter out more of these harmful rays. So why aren’t brown bottles necessary for wine? According to Stéphane Stanton-Brand, East Coast market manager for Saverglass, a large bottle manufacturer based in France, “[Unlike beer] red wine does not require more UV protection than the green color offers.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Brown glass flute bottles are commonly associated with the white wines of the Rheingau region of Germany. And you’re unlikely to ever see rosés outside of a colorless bottle, which benefits the wine by having its natural color on display. It’s also a visual cue to consumers that the wine is meant to be drunk young.
More than in green, brown or blue bottles, colorless glass shows flaws that tinted glass can hide. Stanton-Brand recommends comparing the glass’s “skin” on least and most expensive bottles of rosé the next time you’re in a wine store. The more expensive bottle will likely have a noticeable consistency and brilliance while the cheaper ones will tend to show variation in how they reflect light.
Does a heavier bottle add more than just weight?
With wine and cork, a bottle of Insignia weighs 3.35 pounds. Compare that to a bottle of Bacchus Cabernet, an everyday California wine that retails around $12 and weighs 2.8 pounds unopened. That’s a huge difference for producers when it comes to shipping a pallet across the country or an ocean.
Thicker glass does, in fact, make a bottle stronger, which can be essential. It’s required for sparkling wine in order to withstand the bottle’s internal pressure. Thicker glass is also crucial in large-format bottles, in order to reinforce the extra weight that comes from having larger volume of wine. But for most still wine? The purpose is generally just to add gravitas and a touch of luxury.
At Saverglass, wineries request a heavier bottle more than any other modification, less as a point of vanity than a matter of perception. For bottles costing more than $100, especially from prestigious regions like Bordeaux and Napa, a weighty bottle is expected.
The takeaway? It’s not uncommon for a brand to spend extra on glass to meet consumer expectations. Just remember that the added cost of production and shipping will be incorporated into the overall price of the wine.
What’s the point of the punt?
There’s no consensus to why wine bottles are still made with a punt, the hollow indentation at the bottom, but it’s a feature that’s here to stay. Like a heavy bottle, it seems a deep punt is just another subtle way to attract the customer’s attention. It conveys something different about the bottle, even if you don’t quite know what that is. A deep punt requires more glass to make, and the feature goes hand-in-hand with the aforementioned heavy, expensive bottles.
A bottle with a totally flat bottom is the least expensive option. It’s why you don’t find punts on products like soda or salad dressing. The exception is the flute shape, the elongated bottle most likely to contain Riesling or Gewürztraminer, has traditionally been produced with no punt, regardless of the wine’s quality.
Seam(less) quality control
For Kelly Koch, winemaker at Macari Vineyards on Long Island’s North Fork, bottle quality is paramount for seamless production.
“Imperfections in the glass can make it harder to run through the bottling line,” she says. “The machine has lots of moving parts [that] can be adjusted to fit the particular bottle which is being run through. If the bottles are not all exactly the same, then there can be issues.”
Just as importantly, shoddy production and imprecise cooling during the glassmaking process, can make bottles more prone to breaking, or have visible seams—another indication of a cheaply made bottle.
Heart of glass
The finer details behind a wine’s container may be overlooked by most on its journey from store shelf to recycling bin. But the glass bottle is important, and not just for the person showcasing their latest harvest’s work or the company looking to make a splash on the market. Bottles are why wine can travel from the most obscure locations in the world to your glass or cellar. For the person concerned with terroir, vintage and storage, this essential packaging can indeed provide intriguing insight into the wine’s overall mystique.