Wine connoisseurs tend to place great weight and mission on the liquid, sprinkling their conversations with terms like “elegant,” “sparkling” and “authentic” when describing wines to other specialists and the general public. Wine reviews and the corollary tasting notes are important, but beyond the fluid lie a pastiche of bottle features that make a Beaujolais Nouveau distinct from a Château Cheval Blanc, or elevate the stature of a Puligny-Montrachet over, say, a Graham Beck NV Brut Rose Chardonnay Pinot Noir. These distinctive wine bottle features include things like color, punt, foil, size and shape.
Conventional color codes used for wine bottles are diverse, depending on whether the content is Bordeaux, Champagne, Rhine, Mosel and Alsace, or Burgundy and the Rhone. Bordeaux tends to favor clear for sweet whites, light green for dry whites and dark green for reds. Rosé champagnes typically are green or colorless, whereas pure champagnes’ color codes range from medium green to dark. Rhine wines are usually amber, but some producers may use green. The Mosel and Alsace wine brand traditionally prefers amber, but dark and medium green are not unusual. The color code for Burgundy and the Rhone is dark green. Each has a traditional color and bottle scheme that individualize the varietal.
A foil, also known as a capsule, is the protective sleeve you usually find on a commercial corked wine bottle. The foil primarily has a hygienic motive, protecting the cork against rodents and helping catch small drips when discharging. Besides the public-health objective, the capsule plays a potent role in wine branding, helping decorate and distinguish the bottle’s label. Historically made of lead, foils in the modern-day economy are assembled with a hodgepodge of elements, running the gamut from polylaminate aluminium and polyethylene to tin and polyvinyl chloride. Some wine producers omit the foil altogether, or use sealing wax, depending on commercial constraints, market needs and regulatory requirements, among others. A foil also serves as a measure of authentication, and some winemakers often insert a paper strip under the foil, forcing the potential drinker to break it before uncorking the bottle.
Common wine bottle sizes are tied to the Western culture, and it is not uncommon to see bottle sizes named for historical personalities and Biblical monarchs. A standard wine bottle is 0.75 liter, or 0.20 U.S. gallon, but the varieties of sizes are astounding. For example, a Piccolo contains 0.1875 liter, while the metrics for Chopine, Demi, Tenth and Jennie are 0.25 liter, 0.375 liter, 0.378 liter and 0.5 liter, respectively. In the plus-size category, for example, the respective content metrics are: Melchizedek (30.0 liters), Primat or Goliath (27.0 liters), Melchior (18.0 liters), Nebuchadnezzar (15.0 liters) and Mordechai (9.0 liters). Champagne houses generally cannot perform secondary fermentation in bottles larger than 1.5 liters because it is operationally difficult and economically inefficient to riddle heavy, large bottles.
Wine bottle shapes are as varied as the colors of the grapes that make the underlying wine. Bordeaux, Sherry and Port varieties are sold with a straight-sided bottle, usually high-shouldered with a pronounced punt. The varieties often feature bottles with a bulbous neck. Italian wines, such as the Chianti and the Fiasco, display a round-bottomed flagon sheathed in a stubble basket. Sparkling wines in general, and Champagnes in particular, prefer a thick-walled and wide bottle, typically with a prominent punt and slanting shoulders. The Schlegel variety, a prominent feature in German winemaking, favors tall bottles with slender and elongated shoulders.
It is fun to be able to see from the wine bottle the type and region the wine originates. Many of the differences are subtle but they parallel the subtleties that make wine mediocre or magnificent.