Message in a Bottle
The romantic notion of finding a message in a bottle is ever green. Bottle messages were featured in a 1999 film starring Kevin Costner, in a popular StarTrek: Voyager episode and in various novels, but most of us identify the phrase with the 1979 pop-hit by the Police. While the world’s creative talent focuses on the communication inside the bottle, no one seems to have considered the message emanating from the bottle itself. With a voluptuous mouth, slim neck, soft shoulders and curvaceous body, the wine bottle’s come hither communiqué 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 Bordeaux in lighter green glass and sweet Bordeaux, such as Sauternes or Barsac, are in clear glass bottles. Both Alsace and the Mosel Valley use green or blue-green glass for their bottles, whereas the nearby Rhine region uses brown glass.
Colours affect the light filtration into the bottle, with the darker colours being considered more protective of the contents inside. Thus vin de guard 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 or Pinot Grigio, are often in clear or pale green bottles to portray a vibrant, youthful image. Rosé is almost always bottled in clear glass to show off its Pretty in Pink colour. Clear glass is a helpful messenger because once rosé is tinged orange it is time to drink-up as the wine is beginning its journey toward middle-aged spread. Many powerful supermarket chains in the United Kingdom not long ago demanded that wine producers use recycled glass for everyday drinking wines. The producers concurred, but there was a problem as there is little clear recycled bottle glass on the market. Producers who poured their pretty pink rosé in pale green bottles, saw sales crash immediately: pink and green do not a pretty colour make.
In Burgundy, there are not such discernable differences in glass colour, though white Burgundy bottles are often in a light gold autumnal-leaf hue whereas red Burgundy is always sheltered in dark bottles. Shape is another matter. Wine aficionados playing the “guess the origin” game have been known to take a sneaky grope even while pouring from bottles encased in socks or bags to mask identity. Burgundy’s bottle shoulders reflect the laid-back attitude of the region’s producers: gently sloping and relaxed, but their bodies distinctly reflect my family gene-pool: broad-in-the-beam or bottom heavy. These slope-shouldered, plush-bottomed beauties are challenging to keep in orderly submission on the cellar shelves. Rhone bottles have a similar shape to 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 bocksbeutal is de riguer from 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 intended for lengthy aging, so the bottles are usually sturdy and with long necks to accommodate an extended cork. Port bottles often flare at the neck, purportedly to help capture sediment when decanting the wine, which is also one of the explanations for Bordeaux’s firm shoulders. Classic European bottle shapes have been widely adopted by winemakers around the world, all hoping to emanate an irresistibly romantic message, though a few of the whacky shapes infiltrating our shelves lately are seeming more like Sting’s plaintive SOS.