By: Warren Gregory
As a feature of our modern world wine is securely linked to tradition and the surest indication of that is in your hands every time you purchase or serve it; the bottle and the cork. For most of its history wine was very different from the beverage we enjoy today largely because of the struggle to keep it from spoiling. To purchase wine, individuals went to a merchant with containers of their own to have a portion drawn from ceramic amphorae or large oak barrels. It was not until the 1700’s, with the mass production of glass bottles and the reintroduction of cork as a stopper that wine could be reliably protected from the ravages of oxygen.
Early glass bottles were short and fat with conical necks. By the 1720’s bottles were taller and more cylindrical and could be stored on their side. But, it was illegal to sell wine by the bottle in Britain until the 1860’s. Corks were branded with identification by European wine producers and the tradition of presenting the cork at the table, as is done today in restaurants, was one way of establishing the origin of the contents.
Mass produced, molded bottles became the norm by the mid 1800’s and three basic shapes, the Burgundy, the Bordeaux and the German Riesling, were established. Even today these bottle shapes connect with our perceptions of what kind of wine is inside. Well made Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for example is put into a Burgundy shaped bottle while Cabernet-based reds and ambitious wines of other black grapes are sold in Bordeaux bottles. Heavier glass is employed for Champagne bottles to withstand the internal pressure of the bubbles.
The glass bottle and the nearly air tight seal of cork revolutionized wine. For the first time flavors could be protected for many years and the idea that wine could mature for a decade or more and reveal previously unrealized character greatly enhanced, no doubt, its aristocratic appeal. The modern status of wine and the flavor profiles that we esteem today would not be possible without bottles and corks.
It is amazingly quaint that a product with the status of wine is shipped and served in heavy, fragile bottles that have seen little change for two-hundred and fifty years. But change is on the wind, with the growing concern over corks and the appearance of synthetic cork and twist caps. Today, very high quality wine is sold with a screw cap closure as some wine makers fear their labors will be spoiled by a faulty cork. Still, every time you pull a cork you take part in one of the few remaining traditions that links us directly to the life of three centuries ago.
Warren Gregory can be reached at [email protected] Have a wine related question or live in or near the Twin Cities in Minnesota? Plan a wine event. Warren is a certified sommelier and writes professionally and leads classes in wine tasting and knowledge. Visit the website for more recommendations and opinions and for more fun information on wine from the guy who thinks wine should be genuine, interesting and individual like you are. Visit warrenswineworld.com for more info on wines, grapes and regions or sign up with your e-mail to receive free downloads and a bi-weekly newsletter.
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