Wine Bottles – History & Clues for Blind Tasting Wine

wine_tasting_glassesOver dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen the other night, I was telling one of my girl friends that I was invited to participate in a blind wine tasting with a number of Northern California varietals and I am a little intimidated.  I believe that I can easily distinguish the varietals that I drink on a regular basis, but there seem to be more choices as our Northern California growers and winemakers are testing new varietals and pushing the limits of what we thought could be produced here.

We started trying to guess the wines that other diners were drinking by the visual clues that we had from our table, which did not include any wine labels.  We were actually able to guess an amazing number of varietals from the bottle and color alone.  So I decided to test this theory.

weinmuseum_Roemerwein_smallFirst, a little history on the development of glass wine bottles, since wine has been around for a really long time.  The oldest still-liquid grape wine in the world – dates to 300 AD.  Pottery found in China dating from 9000 BC contained liquid (wine?) and the Armenians appear to have produced wine since 4000 BC.

Glassware was probably discovered by potters when firing their pottery.  Glass eventually became an independent ware, although originally brittle and very costly.  Glassware usage expanded throughout the Roman Empire where it was used as largely as serving containers for wine instead of storage. The real change occurred when a timber shortage led to the creation of coal-fueled furnaces in the 17th century.  The hotter temperatures allowed for thicker, darker glass than glass-makers had previously been able to produce.  This paired with the new cork closures which came into fashion at the same time provided an excellent way to store and transport wine. 

The glass wine bottle was an important development in the wine industry because wine began to be bottled at the source (estate/vineyard) versus being sold by the barrel and bottled by the merchant.  The size of the current wine bottle (750 ml) is roughly the average exhalation volume of the human lungs when glass blowing.

Burgundy vs BordeauxOnce glass blown bottles became practical, the theory is Burgundy developed their bottle style first because its gentle slope was easier for glassblowers to master. It’s not known if Bordeaux producers wanted to distinguish their wines from those of Burgundy, or if they just designed a bottle with shoulders to help trap sediment when decanting, but these seem to be two current theories.

Germanic wine bottles have a tall flute shape developed to maximize packing efficiency in crates out of a region where the main trade route was on smooth-sailing barges along the Rhine.  Bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy (traditionally with a punt in the base) are stronger for trade routes by sea (Bordeaux) or over land (Burgundy).  These basic styles still dominant the wine market.

Most producers of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer will use the traditional Germanic flutes; Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers use a Burgundy bottle; and similarly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines use the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle. This is really practical, because it communicates the flavor profile to us in an instant.

Now, I am going to try to guess Northern California varietals by the shape of the bottle.  For this very unscientific test, my husband pulled a random variety of Northern California wines from the cellar attempting to select a variety of producers and varietals and bottle shapes.

Red SmallLet’s start with the Red wines.  All of the labels were covered for the test. The pinot noir was easiest.  The pinot was consistently bottled in the Burgundy bottle fashion, some with slope variations, but always in a very recognizable shape.  They are the three wines on the right in the photograph.  I did mistake a syrah for a pinot because it was also bottled in a similar style.  This style is actually a Rhone bottle which is not quite as wide and slope is more severe than Burgundy bottle.  I learned something new!

The Bordeaux style bottles appeared to be used for all of the other varietals I encountered, making it easy to eliminate pinot noir and syrah, but the bottle shape did not provide much additional help.  The wines my husband selected included a sangiovese, a zinfandel, a merlot and three cabernet sauvignons (from left to right).

White-Rose Small

The next group included sparkling wine, white wine, and rosé wine.  Once again, one was easy – the champagne (two on left in the photo). This type of bottle has sloping shoulders, but requires very thick glass to withstand the sparkling wine’s pressure – 3 times that of a normal bottle of wine.  Most of these bottles have a punt (the dent at the bottom of the bottle) which was originally used to provide strength.  The punt is no longer needed but the tradition continues.

The rosé wine was easier once I thought about it.  Rosé made from pinot noir grapes came in a Burgundy style bottle and rosé made from zinfandel came in a Bordeaux style bottle.  In Northern California many additional varietals are made in a rosé style, but my cellar currently only had these two varietals, so I had an advantage guessing.  It is also probably an indication of what I need to add to my cellar.  These are the two bottles on the right.

BV rieslingWhite wines were more difficult, because they come in a larger variety of shapes and colors. Additionally, Northern California produces a large number of white varietals and has a number of stylized bottles.  So where to start.  Bordeaux’s white varietals include sauvignon blanc, chenin blanc and semillon and are usually bottled in clear or light green glass.  Burgundy’s predominant white varietal is chardonnay and is usually bottled in dark green glass.  German white varietals include riesling and gewürztraminer and the bottle is more slender than normal bottles and ranges in color from green to brown.  My husband didn’t select either of these varietals, but I have frequently seen them in bottles like the one shown as well as Bordeaux style clear bottles in our area.

For the six white wines, I selected as follows (left to right), sauvignon blanc, viognier, pinot grigio/pinot gris and the remaining wines as chardonnay. The wines were actually sauvignon blanc for the first and fifth wines and chardonnay for the remaining wines.

So, how much can the bottle help me with my Northern California blind tasting.  I think I might be able to narrow the wines down just by looking at the shape of the bottle, but make a firm conclusion – perhaps only on a few like pinot noir, syrah, and champagne.

I still think it was a fun exercise that I will probably repeat on my next grocery or wine store visit, since they will probably have a better selection to fool me.

A couple of additional trivia facts, that you might like to know as well.  The wines of the Loire Valley (Northwestern France) are often packaged in the Burgundy bottle.  Some of the common Loire Valley varietals include chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, and cabernet franc. This must be to confuse us with the Bordeaux wines.

The word punt is short for pontil stick, which was a wooden tool that was attached to the base of the glass bottle while it was being blown. The tool left an indentation which gave the bottle stability.

The uniformity of the wine bottle neck was a great breakthrough because it allowed the cork to be pushed all the way into the bottle for the first time, improving the seal. It also created the need for our first cork screws, which were probably invented by the English. These steel worms, which they called bottle screws, were said to be modified gun worms that had been used to extract unspent bullets from muskets and pistols.

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