Vol. 1, No. 30, Aug. 9, 1999
© Copyright 1999 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.
Square shoulders and sloped shoulders: Tradition!
A reader's recent question about the shapes of wine bottles started me thinking about how very traditional the wine industry is. Once a winery starts doing something a certain way, it's not likely to change it.
Nowhere is this more evident than in the shape of the wine bottles of Burgundy and Bordeaux. As many of you have surely noticed, a very large proportion of all wine bottles come in one or the other of two basic shapes. Let's call one "slope-shouldered" (the style traditionally used in Burgundy) and the other "square-shouldered" (the shape that's been preferred for centuries in Bordeaux).
The way I've always heard the story, the slope-shouldered Burgundy form is older, and it was one of the first shapes that glass-blowers mastered when they started making bottles in mass production. Interestingly, this technology - and the discovery that plugs of cork made an effective way to put an airtight stopper in the bottle - led to the first real possibility of keeping wine for long-term aging, because the cylindrical bottles could be stacked easily, and the cork-stoppered glass bottle allowed the wine to be kept airtight for a much longer time than had been possible in casks and barrels.
Burgundy, one of the premier wine regions in France, soon adopted the newfangled bottles. Later on, someone in Bordeaux came up with the idea of putting a "shoulder" on the bottle, partly to distinguish its wines from Burgundy but mostly to provide a way to trap sediment in the bottle when the wine was being poured. Since old Burgundies "throw" sediment too, it would have made sense for the Burgundians to go over to the new bottle shape, but I suspect the idea of imitating their rivals didn't suit them.
Other wine regions weren't so competitive. In modern times, the Italians, for example, enthusiastically adopted the "Bordeaux-style" bottle for Chianti, replacing the old wicker-wrapped jugs as a way of marketing this tasty wine with a more upscale image.
And if you'll look at wine bottles from around the world, you'll notice something interesting: Wineries in California, Australia, South America, South Africa and just about any other places that make "French-style" wines, will almost invariably put Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot -- the "Bordeaux" grapes -- into square-shouldered bottles, while Pinot Noir and Chardonnay -- the "Burgundy" grapes -- are usually sold in the slope-shouldered style.
If you know something about bottle-making history or if you'd just like to comment on this week's topic, feel free to write me at email@example.com. Thanks to the many readers who sent in comments on last week's topic about the cost of everyday wine. I regret that the numbers of replies and my travel schedule made it impossible to reply individually as I like to do, but I will summarize the responses in a coming edition. And, as always, don't hesitate to get in touch if you'd like to comment on our topics and tasting notes, suggest a topic for a future bulletin, or just talk about wine.
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Square-shouldered Australian red
Inky dark reddish-purple, with grapey, jammy fruit aromas framed by hulking oak, almost as woody as the sawdust-laden atmosphere in a sawmill. Full and juicy black fruit flavors, so forward it almost seems sweet, with crisp acidity for balance. Oak, fruit and lemony acidity jockey for dominance in a long finish, with oak taking the lead at the wire. U.S. importer: Old Bridge Cellars, San Francisco. (Aug. 6, 1999)
FOOD MATCH: A hearty frittata filled with Italian sausage and potatoes stands up to the oak and makes a fair match.
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