How to Read a Wine Bottle

Wine bottle

You can learn a lot from a bottle. Since wine is very much about tradition, time honored bottle styles offer clues as to what’s inside without even reading the label. By knowing basic bottle shapes, you can give a pretty good guess as to where the wine is from and what grapes are contained within. The following guide was created to offer a glimpse into the world of glass bottles as a way to understand their form, function, and aesthetics.

Why Glass Bottles?

For centuries, glass has been the reigning king of wine storage. Yes, wine is stored in wooden casks as a way to impart flavor and extend aging-but the bottle is how most of us enjoy the fruit of the vine.

As a beautiful, versatile and inert material, glass offers a blend of practicality and beauty befitting this beverage. In terms of beauty, glass offers style and a wide range of personality. It can be clear or opaque. Various colors are used to designate specific types of wines, regions of production, and even the style (i.e. degree of sweetness in German wines). Glass imparts and transfers no volatile compounds and does not react with acid, so it is a sensible choice when flavor is of the essence. It can be also be easily sealed, stored, and displayed.

Thousands of years ago, wine was stored in earthen and ceramic casks-or even in animal hide. These ancient vessels transferred flavor and rendered the wine suspect to oxidation and contamination. With the rise of the Roman Empire came the introduction of glass blowing technology. It was hard to create uniform shapes, sizes, and these bottles (like the ceramic casks of days past) were difficult to seal and age. It wasn’t until the 19th century and the rise of the industrial revolution that the craft of bottle making was made more uniform and standardized. These days the standard size bottle is 750 milliliters (approximately 25 fluid ounces) which makes it easy for producers across all nations to sell and trade wine with ease.

The most common bottle styles are:

Bordeaux:
This style of bottle has straight sides and tall, pronounced shoulders. These bottles are typically deep green for the dry red wines of the region. The Bordeaux style red wines (blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, and Petit Verdot) are deep, rich, and typically require long aging. The shape of the bottle actually serves a purpose during the aging process, as the angle serves to block sediment as you serve the wine. Dry whites (typically Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) are bottled in lighter green or clear glass while the sweet whites (such as Sauternes) use clear glass to show off the deep honey hue of these prized wines.

In other countries, this bottle shape is used for the Bordeaux varietals, Zinfandel, Super-Tuscans (Sangiovese blended with Cabernet Sauvignon), and sometimes Shiraz. Since there are no real rules governing this, wine producers are free to put whatever wine they want in this style of bottle-but chances are pretty good that it will fall in line with the above guidelines.

Burgundy:
Sloping shoulders are typical of wines from Burgundy, with all red and most white wines coming in similar green glass. In Burgundy, these bottles hold Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The exception is wine made from the Gamay grape which sometimes comes in clear glass when produced as Beaujolais Nouveau. Since this wine is meant to be consumed young, there is no need for tinted glass to block sunlight.

This shape is also widely used throughout the rest of the world for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. This style of bottle is very similar to the Rhône style bottles. These are differentiated by an embossed coat of arms or similar insignia on the neck and a slightly less stout girth.

Champagne/Sparkling wine:
This bottle design combines beautiful form and function. Thick glass keeps the bottle from shattering from the intense pressure of the interior bubbly while the pronounced punt (the indentation on the underside) adds structural stability so that the bottom doesn’t blow out. An empty bottle will weigh 50% more than your average bottle, pointing to the heft of this style. It’s worth it though, because nobody wants to risk a case full of broken champagne bottles.

Germany and Alsace:
These German style bottles are slender, narrow, and taller than most every other bottle type. This style can either be green (common for the Mosel in Germany or Alsace in France). Depending on the designation on the label, these white wines can be very sweet (some would say syrupy) to dry. This depends on when the grapes where harvested and how the wine itself was fermented and aged. These wines are typically Riesling and sometimes Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer.

Fortified wines:
Port, Marsala, Madeira and Sherry are all highly alcoholic and suitable for aging. These heavy, dark brown or green bottles are extra sturdy so that they can be aged and transported with ease. Many are even fully opaque. A slight bulge in the neck helps block sediment during service. These bottles typically had a slightly different cork style that allows for resealing.