It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Monday, March 6, 2017

The interesting link between Greek amphorae, Roman barrels and today's wine bottles.

Since its discovery, when a budding wine enthusiast noted the juice of fermented grapes had something special to offer, making wine also brought its own set of challenges. For example, what to do with the unconsumed portion before it oxidizes into something else far less pleasant?  
For the small farmer, who made wine for his family’s sole consumption, large coated, earthenware containers—generally below ground—were the typical, all-in-one, crushing/fermentation,  storage/aging vessels that addressed that problem.

However, for ancient winegrowers in search of an income, their main concern was getting the wine to market in a palatable condition.  In Greece and Rome, when wine was democratized throughout the Mediterranean, the solution was pine or beeswax-lined amphorae. 
Whether partially buried in dirt-floored warehouses, or stored in sand-filled racks aboard ships, the amphorae’s design served both venues quite efficiently. The swan-like handles facilitated carrying and loading, the tapered bottom collected sediment, and the narrow. slim neck—variously sealed—limited oxidation.  
After the Romans conquered and assimilated the Celtic Gaul in 50BC, amphorae usage was quickly superseded by barrels, which the Gaul craftsmen had invented and long used for storage and transport of their beer.
 Sturdier than earthenware and weighing far less, they were easier to load and transport, and they remained the preferred method of short and long distance shipment well into the 1900s.

While glass blowing originated in the first century BC, and carved cork stoppers are traced back to 2000 BC, bottles and glasses were too delicate and expensive for large distance shipment. 
It wasn’t until the mid-1700s that technological advances and large scaled production of glass bottles and corks that sturdier, cork-stopped bottles began to appear.  The long necked, rotund design, often embossed with seals and coats of arm became the design of choice.

Because its globular design did not lend itself to efficient mass storage, a variety of additional shapes which addressed that issue began to appear.

 Eventually, bottle shapes have settled down to three basic profiles.
 And much like everything else related to the history and tradition of wine, the origins of those basic shapes come to us from the Old World appellations of Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Mosel/Alsace.

The Bordeaux bottle with its erect, sentry-like posture proclaims that inside this protective shield lies a tannic wine of strength and structure, depth and concentration. 
With patient aging, however, it will evolve into something far more complex and interesting.
 New World winegrowers have adopted the Bordeaux shape for their varietally labelled Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, as well as Zinfandel.  (Many Italian and Spanish wines also have adopted this shape.)

With its gently sloping shoulders, the elegant Burgundy bottle, strikes a welcoming and gracious pose.  As most wine enthusiasts know, Burgundy (Bourgogne in France) is the birthplace of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 
Quite the opposite of Bordeaux, both wines (whether originating in Burgundy or the New World) offer soft, fruit forward promises of immediate enjoyment.  (The Loire and Rhone Valley bottles are quite similar to the Burgundy form.)

The third major wine bottle shape emanates from Germany’s Mosel and France’s Alsace.  It is a thin, long-necked bottle with very gently sloping shoulders, often used for wines such as Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer.
Its svelte shape signals the intense fruit and high toned acidity that often are the hallmark of these wines.  In the New World, this shape is used almost exclusively for Riesling (either dry or sweet).

Lastly, while some French producers started estate bottling as early as the 1920s, the practice only became more commonplace in the 1960s and 70s, and it wasn’t until 1972 that it became compulsory in Alsace and the Medoc region of Bordeaux. 
To be sure, estate bottling brought forth salutary effects for both winegrower and the ultimate consumer. For the producer, in addition to establishing a distinct market identity, it also strengthened quality control, as well as facilitating long term storage of past vintages. 
Meanwhile, end users were assured the product came directly from the producer and they too were able to acquire and age numerous cases of favorite vintages.  The widespread use of bottling at the estate definitely developed into a win/win for all concerned.

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