This article was published in The 30 Second Wine Advisor on Monday, Jun. 16, 2008 and can be found at http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor2/tswa20080616.php.
How big is a bottle?
Rarely at a loss for an offbeat or unusual wine-related subject to talk about, the worthies on our WineLovers Discussion Group have come up with an interesting question: Why did 3/4 liter (750ml) become the norm for most wine bottles, rather than a nice, round liter?
The ensuing discussion yielded some interesting hypotheses and unusual factoids, although I'm not sure it definitively answered the question.
Inspired by the discussion, though, let's spend a few minutes today tracing the long story of the wine bottle.
In ancient times, the Romans and others usually kept wine in clay pots. Glass blowing technology was known, but bottles were rare and expensive novelty items that may have been used for serving wine but rarely for storing it.
By the 1500s, glass bottles were fairly commonplace in commerce and in well-to-do households, but they were usee only to tap a ration from a wooden wine barrel and bring it to the table, still not for storage.
The bottle became an important part of wine only in the 17th Century, says Hugh Johnson in his "Vintage: The Story of Wine," when improving technology made it possible to produce bottles in a consistent size and shape that could be easily stored in quantity. Through the 18th Century, the standard wine-bottle shape stretched from a squat decanter-style flagon to a fat "pot" to, eventually, something close to the cylindrical bottle size we know today. Not coincidentally, the use of the natural cork stopper as a reasonably reliable way to close the bottle also developed about around this time.
Bottle sizes seemed to develop by a similar trial-and-error process. In England, the old-fashioned pint and quart sized were popular, perhaps by analogy to other bottled liquids. Most antique bottles, however, seem to fall into the range of 600 ml to 800 ml. Britain and the U.S. eventually legalized the "fifth" bottle - one-fifth of a gallon - as a standard size for wine and liquor, while Europe gravitated to the similar 750 ml size in the metric system, although with many variations such as 700 ml or 730 ml.
Only as recently as the 1970s did most industrial nations standardize on the 750 ml size for consistency in importation and taxation, a move that saw Americans lose about 2/10 of an ounce from the standard bottle.
But all this begs a question: Why the specific "fifth" or 750ml size? Theories abound, but three in particular sound reasonable:
This is the average capacity of a glass-blower's lungs, and thus the approximate size of a bottle created in one blow.
A typical "fifth" bottle full of wine and corked weighs about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds, a convenient size to pack and carry while shopping.
Perhaps most interesting, it's widely reported that the "fifth" size originated as proper ration for a grown man at a meal. Nowadays, a full bottle may seem more like enough for a couple, and then some. But in those times, everyday table wines may have contained 10 percent or 11 percent alcohol, making a larger ration at least slightly more reasonable than with today's "blockbusters."
What do you think? We'd love to have your thoughts and comments on wine-bottle size. You're invited to join this conversation on the WineLovers Discussion Group,
Now, here's a look at a recent offering from California Wine Club's high-end Connoisseurs' Series wine club. This is a splendid Napa Cabernet, quite a bit more pricey than the wines I usually present here; but for wine lovers who feel that they deserve an occasional indulgent treat, it's hard to find a more savvy way to stock your cellar with California treasures than the Connoisseurs' Series:
Hartwell 2004 Estate Reserve Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon ($115 retail; $99 per bottle for half or full case orders by Connoisseurs' Series members)
Clear but very dark blackish-purple with a garnet edge. Luscious aromas of ripe cherries and smoke carry over on the palate in a big mouth full of rich red-cherry fruit and well-integrated oak, bracing acidity and substantial but silky smooth tannins over a hefty but well balanced 14.8% alcohol. It will reward cellar time, but luscious yet balanced fruit and mouth-watering acidity make it hard to keep hands off now, especially with red meat on the table. (It was fine with our choice, lamb tenderloin strips rolled into medallions and pan-seared with garlic and fresh rosemary.) Aged for 21 months in French oak, it adds a touch of 2.3% Petit Verdot to the Cabernet. Winery Website: http://www.hartwellvineyards.com (May 17, 2008)
FIND THIS WINE ONLINE: The Hartwell 2004 Estate Reserve Stags Leap District Cabernet Sauvignon was a recent shipment in California Wine Club's Connoisseurs' Series and is available for additional orders by Connoisseurs' Series members. Call 1-800-777-4443 to join or learn more.
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Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
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Hearty Languedoc red (June 11, 2008)
Rediscovering Provence (June 9, 2008)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
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