Bottled Up.

Bottled Up.

In an industry as stoppered with tradition and conservatism as the wine trade, searching for reasons why something looks the way it does can be a tricky business. Are the different shapes of claret and burgundy bottles merely marketing devices, or is there some technical reason why they look the way do? Do German and Alsace and (mostly) English wine have to be sold in tall narrow bottles or is this, too, just a useful visual shorthand, allowing you to pick them out as easily on the shelves as Raymond Loewy's hipped Coca-Cola bottle of he 1930s?

Five old bottles Storing wine in glass bottles is a comparatively recent innovation, given the antiquity of the wine trade. The technology of the wooden barrel is about 5,000 years old, while that of the glass bottle, though not unknown to the Romans, first became widespread in Renaissance Italy and arrived in Britain in about 1645. Before that, you either filled your cup straight from the barrel (and some barrels, as Roman examples found in Britain prove, were of a usefully small size) or you lugged around a stitched leather bottle scaled with pitch on the inside, and, later, pottery flasks and jugs.

Left: Evolution of the bottle. Top to bottom: a stitched leather bag, ca. pre-1600; a pottery "flagon" ca. 1600's. The remainder are early forms of glass bottles, ca. 1703; ca. 1736; ca. 1802.

The immediate predecessor of the glass bottle in England was a white-glazed jug with a handle and narrow spout, usually sealed with a wooden bung. This arrived about 1630 and often had the name of the contents -- sack for sherry, for instance-- written in blue under the glaze. The idea was never to keep wine for long in these vessels, but to use them as decanters. Wine was a volatile substance before modern vinification techniques were devised, and, so far as we can tell, tasted very different from today's product as well.

The metaphorical biblical warning against putting new wine (likely to ferment) into old leather bottle (liable to split) gives an idea of the problems. So when glass bottles were introduced, they continued this decanting tradition in a new material.

At first, the new wonder substance didn't really do the job that well. Bottles were made by blowing a spherical or oval blob of glass on the end of a long glass shaft. The shaft was given a pronounced lip at the top, so that the bung could be tied down with string. Being round, these bottles tended to fall over -- hence the invention of the straw basket base, which survives in some chianti bottles but which was once common across Europe, not least because it also helped to protect the glass from breakage.

Putting a dent in the base meant that the bottles became onion shaped and could be stood up on their own. A Krug champagne bottle of today with its long, slender neck is a conscious throwback to those early days. Because original 17th-century bottles sell for thousands of pounds at auction, the shape (as Krug realizes) has come to be seen as an indicator of quality, and is thus aped by certain purveyors of expensive mineral water.

The breakthrough in bottle design came when it wa.s realized that you could use these things to store and mature and transport wine in. This required the bottles to have straighter .sides so that they could be stacked on top of each other with the minimum of packing in between. It happened from the 1730s onwards, at the same time as the adoption of the cork and the invention of the corkscrew was revolutionizing the packaging in other ways.

The modern bottle arrived when a way was found of blowing the glass into cylindrical moulds. The Bristol glass-maker Henry Ricketts patented a mould in 1821 that allowed bottle of accurate capacity to be made in one operation. Wine shippers such as Harveys of Bristol adopted the Ricketts bottles at once; the broad shouldered design of Harvey's sherry bottles date from that time.

The champagne bottle evolved as a way of containing the pressure of wine that fermented in the glass; the claret bottle is a compromise between ease of storage (long straight sides) and containment of sediment the dimpled base and the shoulders to catch the last sediment-heavy drops). Other wines that generated no such deposits did not need the shoulders -- you can empty a bottle of German or Loire wine without having to upend the bottle. Now that the shapes are determined there is little reason fro them ever to change, nor will they even if glass is replaced with rigid plastic. We know what they are saying, and we know equally that a novelty bottle is likely to contain something disgusting. Wine labels, a rich seam of work for contemporary artists, are now the only permissible variant in this hyper-conservative business. One understands why the Italian artist Gioroio Morandi hardly ever left his native bologna, and spent most of his life painting the same increasingly dusty tall bottles on his studio table, over and over again.