The bottle you buy your wine in is a truly iconic object.  The shape is fairly consistent (there are oddities like the dumpy bottle of Mateus Rose or the tall Riesling bottle).  The bottle volume is a global standard of 750ml.  Even the US, home of fiercely national units of measurement, sells wine in bottles containing 25.36 fluid ounces.  But it wasn’t always like this, and it may not be this way in the future.

The history of winemaking is full of examples of different containers for wine.  In prehistoric times, the only practical container was a pottery vessel.  As well as pyramids, the ancient Egyptians produced pottery wine flasks marked with the origin of the wine.  For bulk transport, larger pottery containers called amphora, containing the equivalent of 50 modern bottles were used – but that’s rather a lot to put on the dining table.  Small amphora, richly decorated and holding just a couple of modern bottles, were prized domestic tableware.  Terracotta pottery vessels were even used as vats where grape juice ferments into wine.

Pottery flasks are heavy and risk being broken.  Even so, the pottery wine vessel was the only show in town for more than five thousand years.  Things started to change when the expanding Roman Empire clashed with the locals in what is now France around 50BC.  The Gauls brewed beer and stored it in wooden barrels.  Within a hundred years, the wooden barrel had largely supplanted the amphora as the preferred way to transport wine.

But a wine barrel has never been a domestic sized container.  Glass was far too expensive as tableware for any but the richest of the Romans and too fragile for transporting wine.  So pottery jugs, sometimes exquisitely decorated, continued in use for serving wine.  Travelers wanting a portable drink carried leather bags of wine.

Roll on another 15 centuries.  Refinements in glass technology in the 17th century led to stronger, cheaper bottles.  Bottles had varying colors and shapes, and the volume was defined by a very non-standard “lungful” of the glassblower’s breath (very approximately comparable to a modern bottle).  Wine continued to be sold by the barrel and decanted into these non-standard bottles.  

Within a hundred years, wine drinkers began to recognize the importance of different winemakers, grape varieties, and vineyards.  People also began to age their wine in bottles. The invention of the cork closure meant that bottles of wines could be transported without spillage.  Bottles became more and more important.  But it took a while for consistent bottle sizes to be produced. It remained illegal to sell wine by the bottle in England until 1860.  And it is less than 50 years since the global standard of 750ml bottles started to emerge.

So where is the wine bottle going?  There’s a lot of new technology being proposed and tried.  Come back to this blog soon and find my predictions.

Robin Hall

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