Message in a bottle

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 March, 2009, 12:00am

While writers and filmmakers have focused on the significance of what is inside washed-ashore wine bottles, few seem to have considered the message emanating from the vessel itself. With its voluptuous mouth, slim neck, soft shoulders and curvaceous body, the wine bottle has been sending romantic messages to wine lovers for centuries.

Bottles come in all shapes, sizes and colours but some designs are associated with a specific grape variety, wine style or region. Bordeaux wines - no matter what their style - are always packaged in bottles with straight sides and distinctive tall shoulders. Red bordeaux is found in dark-green glass; white in lighter-green glass; and sweet varieties, such as sauternes or barsac, come in clear-glass bottles. Producers in Alsace and the Mosel Valley use green or blue-green glass for their bottles, whereas the nearby Rhine region uses brown.

Colours affect the filtration of light into a bottle, with darker colours considered more protective of the contents. Thus vins de garde or 'wines for keeping' are bottled in darker-coloured bottles. Wines intended to be savoured while young (one to two years old), such as sauvignon blanc and pinot grigio, are often in clear or pale-green bottles to portray a vibrant, youthful image. Ros? is usually bottled in clear glass to show off its pretty pink colour. Clear glass can be helpful because once ros? is tinged orange, it is time to drink it as the wine has begun its journey towards middle-aged spread. Big supermarket chains in Britain recently demanded that producers use recycled glass for everyday drinking wines. The producers agreed but soon discovered there was little clear recycled bottle glass on the market. Producers who bottled their ros? in pale-green glass saw sales crash: pink and green do not a pretty colour make.

Shape is another matter. Wine aficionados playing 'guess the origin' have been known to take a sneaky grope while pouring from bottles that have been encased in socks or bags to mask their identity.

The shoulders on bottles from Burgundy reflect the laid-back attitude of the region's producers: gently sloping and relaxed, whereas their bodies are bottom heavy. These slope-shouldered, plush-bottomed beauties are challenging to keep in an orderly fashion on cellar shelves. Rhone bottles have a similar shape to those from Burgundy but are a tad slimmer, with many sporting an embossed coat of arms on the neck. Tall, slender bottles known as flutes are typical of Germany and Alsace, though the short, squat bocksbeutel is typical of Germany's Franken region. Provence's unique bowling-pin-shaped bottle is known as a skittle.

Most fortified wines, such as port, madeira and sweet sherry, are aged, so the bottles are usually sturdy with long necks to accommodate an extended cork. Port bottles often flare at the neck, purportedly to help capture sediment when decanting, which is also one of the explanations for the firm shoulders of bordeaux bottles.

Debra Meiburg is a Master of Wine.