Wine bottle shapes

Alsatian ‘flute’ bottle.

Have you every wondered why a standard wine bottle is 750mL? Or why wine bottles are the shape they are?

My curiosity was recently piqued by David Ling at Hugel in Alsace when he uncovered a few tidbits. 750mL is roughly the average exhalation volume of the human lungs (in the context of glassblowing). Thus, it was the most common size when bottles were all made by human glassblowers – a tradition that has persisted into today’s regulated market. Specialist glassblowers were required to blow larger format bottles – magnums for instance.

The reason Alsatian and Germanic wine bottles are the classic, tall flute shape is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a matter of economics. The main trade route out of these regions was on smooth-sailing barges along the Rhine. Bottles did not need to be as strong as those from other regions with more strenuous trade routes and thus did not require a punt at the bottom of the bottle. The long flute shape was found to be ideal for maximising packing efficiency in crates.

Bottles from Bordeaux and Burgundy are stronger, with a traditional punt found in the base, as the bottles had to withstand a rougher journey to their export markets by sea (Bordeaux) or over land (Burgundy). The high shoulder of the Bordeaux bottle is said to capture much of the sediment of these more tannic wines – a feature that is not needed with Burgundy. Wines from Chianti were traditionally carried around by a handle attached to a straw basket secured around the base of the bottle. This meant bottles did not even need a flat bottom – making fiasci the cheapest bottle yet.

What was once a matter of common sense and practicality has now become embedded in tradition – or even law. For example, Alsace AOC white wines must be bottled in the flutes. Bottle shapes have become synonymous with wine styles too. Most New World producers of Riesling, Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer will use the traditional Germanic flutes. Most Chardonnay and Pinot Noir around the world use a Burgundy bottle; similarly for Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot-based wines using the high-shouldered Bordeaux bottle.

There is a reason for everything!

Edit: “750ml is roughly the capacity of the human lung” has been changed to “750ml is roughly the exhalation volume of the human lungs”
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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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14 Responses to Wine bottle shapes

  1. Neel Burton says:

    Very interesting article James.

    Not sure about the lung story. What you’re really interested in is the vital capacity for both lungs, which, at 3-5L, is much more than 750ml. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vital_capacity

    There is a reason for everything. The difficulty is to find it.

  2. I was reading somewhere that some wines have a deeper punt at the bottom to accumulate the sediment, and it assists with stability on a table compared to a flatter ended bottle. But the article said it could also have been a hangover from the traditional way the bottle was made, I just can’t find the article again, I hate when this happens.

  3. James says:

    Yes, it’s quite bizarre when things seem to just ‘disappear’ from the internet!
    There seem to be many origins behind the shape of wine bottles – rather like a creation myth…!
    Neel, do you think an average glassblower could really inflate a bottle to the absolute maximum of his lung capacity?

  4. Neel Burton says:

    That’s a good point. Maybe not the maximum, but I would have thought—especially with lots of practice—more than just 750ml. Maybe we should ask a glassblower! But even if it is just 750ml or thereabouts, ‘750ml is roughly the average capacity of the human lung’ is not the same as something like ‘750ml is about what an average glassblower can manage with his lungs’. God I sound like George!

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  8. That’s a really intriguing read, especially with the idea for the origin of the bottle size that everyone has discussed… very cool. I also haven’t really ever previously considered the “why” for the punt at the bottom of a bottle. Upon further reading, though, it seems that there are a lot of theories regarding this, which is fun and interesting to read about.

  9. Most of the new world pinot noirs are not using the Burgundy style bottles but rather one that has a longer neck with shorter and fatter bodies.

  10. Dawn Montgomery says:

    Gentlemen, could this be the article you’re looking for?http://www.winespectator.com/drvinny/show/id/46387

  11. Pingback: Hauller Sylvaner Alsace 2013 | Vine, wine and more

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