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Wine Tip of the Week: Bottle Builders

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from author John Hailman’s book ‘The Search for Good Wine’ which will be available for purchase October 2014 from the University of Mississippi Press. This particular chapter was written on September 17, 1989.
A reader recently asked: “Why are wines bottles so many different colors and shapes? Do the differences serve any useful purpose?”
wineshop_001The answer is a qualified maybe – sometimes. As with so many subjects, the origins of the differences in bottles lie more with history than logic.
The Romans used wine bottles, occasionally even with corks, but not to the extent we do. During the Dark Ages and Middle Ages, however, glass-making so declined that most wines were drunk straight from the barrel. Without bottles and cork-stoppers, wines spoiled within one year. So no aged wine at all was drunk for over a thousand years.
The rediscovery of the wine bottle began in the 17th century. The first bottles were squat, bulbous affairs with large bottoms and small necks (like some lawyers I know) which were tougher for hard-drinking squires to knock over. Only later, when they rediscovered the use of corks to keep air out of bottles, and needed to keep the corks moist by laying the bottles on their sides, did our long “binnable” bottles come into being.
The classic example of a bottle made for stacking or “laying down” is the Bordeaux bottle. It is also much easier to knock over.
The Better to See it, My Dear
Medieval wine bottles were often leather, while beer bottles were made of crockery into the 19th century. When the switch was made to glass, people began to notice that wine in certain colored bottles kept longer than that in clear ones. Originally, most bottles had been dark-colored to hide flaws in wines, which were often murky, opaque, and had strange things floating in them. To this day the quasi-official glasses for drinking German wines are not clear but light green, imparting proper color to those golden wines, even though no longer necessary.
Clear glass came into use for white wines only recently. It lets you know what the wine looks like without opening the bottle, but it also lets in all the light, which can spoil delicate wines quickly if left in the sun.
At the other extreme are most Italian reds, such as Barolo, which are still bottled in dark brown, even blackish botdes. One of the best Spanish champagne or cava producers, Freixenet, bottles some of its wines in totally opaque black bottles, thus giving them the ultimate protection.
One champagne producer, Roederer, has made a fortune doing just the opposite: bottling in clear glass, exploiting the beautiful color of its wine called Cristal.
Much bottle color is pure habit. In German wines, for example, Rhine wines come in medium-brown bottles, while Mosels come in medium-green ones. Both, however, are shaped the same: so tapered that they are hard to stack for aging.
Germany also produces the strangest-looking wines bottles I’ve seen lately – pharmaceutical blue. Have you seen those bright blue bottles chemist use to use? They’re supposed to protect chemicals from light. Now there is a German winemaker called Dr. Zenzen (sounds like a bad British TV series) which it sells its Rhines in chemical-blue bottles. I suppose they taste the same, but I keep expecting to smell ether and keel over.
All in all, with the quality of wine being as good as it is today, the color of the bottles has less practical importance. If stored properly, out of excessive light, clear glass can be as safe as dark green.
With the few exceptions cited above, bottle color is mostly a matter of habit and personal taste. As for Dr. Zenzen, maybe he is like the family that all wore denim Levis: They must have had blue genes.
John HailmanJohn Hailman of Oxford is a regular contributor to HottyToddy.com on two subjects: Law and Wine. Now retired from both his “day job” as a federal prosecutor in Oxford after 33 years and his “night job” of 25 years as a nationally syndicated daily columnist in more than 100 daily papers on wine, food and travel for Gannett News Service and the Washington Post, Hailman will cover both topics under the titles of The Legal Eagle and Wine Tips of the Week. HottyToddy.com will also run periodic excerpts from Hailman’s upcoming book of humorous legal stories, From Midnight to Guntown: True Crime Stories From A Federal Prosecutor in Mississippi. Hailman now teaches Federal Trial Practice and Law and Literature at the University of Mississippi.

'The Search for Good Wine' by John Hailman will be available October 2014 /Copyright 2014, University of Mississippi Press
‘The Search for Good Wine’ by John Hailman will be available October 2014 /Copyright 2014, University of Mississippi Press

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