What’s with all the different colors and shapes of wine bottles?
Wine bottles are just like people in the sense that they come in many different shapes, sizes, and colors. Look in a wine store and see all the variations from tall, elegant bottles to slim and short ones bursting with potential to traditionally shaped regional examples, and the unusual, creative modern ones which pop up from time to time. And then there are the colors. Pale/Kelly greens, deep inky tones, browns, blacks, and clear bottles showing off the wonderful hues within.
You’ve probably asked yourself just why there is seemingly so much variety in the shape and color of bottles. Wine is a world where coded meanings are commonplace, after all, and it’s not unreasonable to assume the different shapes and sizes have some significance behind them.
Let’s take a closer look at bottle types and explore just why some wineries and regions would choose one bottle style or color over another.
There aren’t really any hard and fast rules dictating why some wineries prefer tall, slim bottles, and others prefer the short and fat ones. However, there are a few trends and historical significance associated with them. There are roughly 12 classic wine bottle shapes, excluding the unique bottle designs that some producers have come up with for marketing purposes. But most winemakers use three distinct bottle shapes - The Burgundy bottle, the Bordeaux bottle and the Alsace/Mosel bottle.
Generally, the shape of a wine bottle has a connection to the type of grapes being used in the wine and the place where those grapes originally came from. You’ll probably notice that Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines tend to come in the classic Burgundy shaped bottles - the part of France where those specific grapes were first cultivated. Similarly, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc wines will be sold in ‘Bordeaux’ bottles, the principal place associated with those varietals.
As to why different regions use different shaped bottles? It’s one of those subjects that wine buffs like to argue over, and it’s an argument which has never really been satisfactorily put to bed. However, back in the day, wines made in specific regions would have remained in their regions and would have been bought primarily by locals and local taverns. As such, it seems likely that each region’s distinctive style of wine bottle manufacturing would have evolved and it would have made it easier for local wineries to make their products easily identifiable.
As the New World wine industry started to pop, modern wineries would just continue the tradition of what had always been the case back in the Old World. Therefore, Cabernet Sauvignon from 20th century California would have been bottled in a similar fashion to Cabernet Sauvignon from 18th century France because, well, just because that’s just how it’s always been.
The Five Principles of Wine Bottle Shapes
Probably the most common shape for wine bottles. This distinctive design goes back to Bordeaux in France, arguably the most iconic of the world’s wine regions.
Straight-sided, tall and proud, with a pair of cut, high shoulders which lead to a straight neck, it’s a design which can be seen in almost all wine-producing countries around the world. Some say the high shoulders were designed to catch the sediment that would build up in older Bordeaux wines, but this has never been confirmed. Another reason for the difference in shape is purely to differentiate it from its Burgundian cousin.
Grapes associated with the Bordeaux bottle are Merlot, Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc - essentially, all the key ‘Bordeaux’ varietals.
This is the sexy, sensual one - wide at the base and with flowing gentle lines which curve upwards into a shorter neck. Unlike the Bordeaux, the Burgundy has few straight edges and no shoulders to speak of, preferring an undulating slope to the top of the bottle. It is believed the design for this bottle came about as it was easier for glassmakers to create. The color of a traditional Burgundy bottle will range from light to dark green (brownish looking).
Grapes associated with the Burgundy bottle are strictly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and maybe a few other local varietals.
Very similar to the Burgundy bottle, however, these bottles tend to be a little taller with a longer neck. Traditional Rhone Valley wines in northern and southern Rhone from France also often feature an embossed badge or shield, although not commonly seen on Rhone varietal wines from other countries.
Grapes associated with the Rhone bottle are Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier, Syrah, Marsanne, and Roussanne.
Essentially the same as the Burgundy bottle but made from much thicker and heavier glass (necessary for withstanding the pressure of all those bubbles!). This bottle style has been imitated by most sparkling wine producers the world over.
Tall, slender, and beautifully elegant, the Alsace bottle come from the shifting borders between Germany and France. These bottles tend to have a very shallow ‘punt’ on the bottom and nice looking when displayed. However, they can be tricky to store in most domestic wine racks, as their length can cause them to slide out easily.
They are also much lighter and thinner than the Burgundy and Bordeaux bottles. The reason for this is the transportation route these wines had to take across the Rhine River. River boats were small, so these bottles had to be thin and light to fit as many bottles in the boat as possible. An adaption of the Alsace/Mosel bottle is its German cousin the Rhine Bottle. The two bottles are quite similar and house the same wines. The way to tell the difference is that Alsace/Mosel bottles will be green, while the Rhine bottles will be a dark brown as well as slightly thinner.
Grapes associated with Alsace bottle are Riesling, Pinot Gris, Muscat, Gewurztraminer, and Gruner Veltliner.
Wine Bottle Colors
Have you ever wondered why some wine bottles are clear, while others are dark green, pale green or brown/amber colored? The answer leads us to somewhere between practicality and tradition.
It tends to be that most white and rosé wines are bottled in clear glass. Both of these wine styles are prized for their clarity and gentle range of colors and by looking at the various hues of the wine in the bottle, you can make an educated guess as to the character you’ll find in the glass. Plus, it can also signify that these wines do not age well.
Alsace and many German white wines tend to come in brown or amber glass. Why? Well, it seems to just come back to that idea of national and regional identity - that’s how it was always done and that’s how it will continue.
As for red wines being sold in green bottles, however, it gets a bit more complicated and a little less clear (no pun intended). There does seem to be a strong argument for practicality here - red wines are easily affected by oxidation and exposure to sunlight (light can speed the process of oxidation), and the dark green glass of Bordeaux-style wines and the medium-green glass of Burgundy wines will help to filter out the potentially harmful light.
Despite this seemingly easy explanation, some wine fans argue that effect of sunlight exposure on these bottles wasn’t understood. Could it be that winemakers from the old country were trying to hide something behind their murky glass bottles - making it difficult for buyers to see what was inside?
Certainly, old bottles of Bordeaux were prone to gathering quite a lot of sediment in their bottoms. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that wine merchants and winery owners might have wanted to keep this unsightly (although completely natural) phenomenon away from the eyes of their customer, but the truth is that we don’t really know.