Know Your Wine Bottle

Posted by Keith Wallace

Table of Contents

Wine bottles are based on centuries of traditions. The wine trade is deeply indebted to those traditions. Even the largest multinational wine corporation (talking to you, Gallo) won’t mess with those cultural norms. The shape of the wine bottle is the only thing that the entire world of wine agrees on.

Did you know that the shape of a wine bottle tells you more than the art on the wine label? Even the color of the bottle can tell you a wealth of information about the wine inside.

Call it superstition or respect for history, every winery insists on conforming to a few basic bottle shape rules. This is important since the very same wineries don’t have any compunction about borderline fraud on their wine labels.

Colorful abstract wine bottles with artistic face designs.
Wine Bottle Shapes

Wine Bottle Shapes

Wine bottles are named after the wine regions that made them famous. Four are French wine regions, and one is German. Bottle shapes are a quick and easy shorthand for the style of wine in the bottle.

Burgundy Bottle

Burgundy Wine Bottle

Red Wines

Three primary red grapes use this type of bottle: Pinot Noir, Grenache, and Syrah. A blend of Grenache and Syrah will also use this bottle style. However, no Pinot blend would ever be in one of these bottles: only a monster who eats small happy children would ever blend Pinot Noir: one of the biggest taboos in the wine trade.

White Wines

Only a few white wines are found in this type of bottle. Those include Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne. While Chardonnay tends to be bottled as a single varietal, the others are often blended.

As a rule, winemakers use these bottles for heavier white wines, often undergoing malolactic fermentation, barrel aging, and lees stirring.

The Big Why

The term “Burgundy” refers to Burgundy, France. The region produces two varietals, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The other classic wine region that uses this bottle is the Rhone Valley. Those wines are Syrah and Grenache for reds (along with a dozen others) and Viognier, Marsanne, and Roussanne (and a dozen others). In Burgundy, no one blends grapes. In the Rhone, pretty much everyone blends.

When bottling wines outside the classic Rhone and Burgundy varietals, a winemaker uses this bottle shape for wines she believes are nuanced and elegant.

Germanic Bottle

Riesling Wine Bottle

White Wines

This bottle is famous for Riesling, and deservedly so. If you delve into wine geekery, you may hear this bottle called a “Hock,” an Old English term for German Riesling. However, any white wine from Germany can use this bottle. That includes Gewurztraminer, Scheurebe, and Pinot Blanc. In France, wines from Alsace also use this wine bottle.

Red Wines

This bottle is mainly used for white wines, except in Alsace. Even Pinot Noir is sold in these slender fluted bottles in this French wine region.

Color Codes in Germany

Wines from the Rhine valley (Mittelrhein, Rheingau, Nahe, and Rheinhessen) are traditionally bottled in brown glass; bottles from the Mosel are typically green. Before the 1920s, Mosel offered blue wine bottles.

Bordeaux Bottle

Bordeaux Wine Bottle

Red Wines

Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc are traditionally found in Bordeaux bottles. In addition, wine grapes genetically related to Cabernet are found in this bottle. That includes grapes such as Malbec and Carmenere.

White Wines

Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon are the traditional white grapes in this bottle style. If a bottle is buttery and oaky, the winery tends to offer them in a Burgundy bottle.

The Big Why

Bordeaux is the French wine region made famous for its red blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. It’s also known for its white wines, blends of Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon.

Over time, this bottle has become the default for most dry red wines. Everything from Zinfandel to Nebbiolo is often sold in this broad-shouldered style bottle. This is the default red wine bottle. When winemakers opt to use another bottle style, it’s usually a big statement.

Another way winemakers can make a big statement is by using heavier Bordeaux-style bottles. The implication is that the heavier the bottle, the more luxurious the wine. But, of course, using heavier glass adds to the cost of the wine, and it’s become something of a marketing gimmick at this point.

Champagne Bottle

Champagne Wine Bottle

Sparkling Wines

These bottles are exclusively made for sparkling wines. The thickness of the glass and the tapered design are utilitarian: it helps prevent breakage.

In the 18th century, champagne bottles had a nasty habit of shattering. This is because a significant amount of CO2 is dissolved in sparkling wines; the pressure is far more than in a car tire.

Modern Champagne bottles are explicitly designed to withhold that amount of pressure. So if you find a bottle of bubbles that isn’t in a Champagne bottle, it is most likely only lightly carbonated.

Various wine bottle sizes illustration.

Wine Bottle Sizes

There are several sizes of wine bottles as well. While many publications and wine schools make a big deal about this, don’t spend too much time on this issue. Most of these are artifacts of long-gone eras and have little to no value in the modern world of wine.

Split (AKA Piccolo). This tiny bottle is often plastic and as cheap as its contents—187.5 ml of pure junk.

Half (AKA Demi). Half bottles were popular in the ’90s but are of little consequence these days. 375 ml.

Half-liter. A favorite bottle size for discount sweet wines is found at the bottom of the refrigerator at your local truck stop. 500 ml.

Standard. This 750-milliliter wine bottle is the only type that makes sense to purchase. This is because the entire distribution, import, and production economy are based on this size. Any other size will cost more to transport, bottle, and store.

Liter. We are learning our metric system! One liter is typically for a bottle of wine you plan on drinking by yourself in the weed-choked parking lot of a bankrupt shopping mall.

Magnum. The start of the pretentious bottle sizes. Some sommeliers argue that wines in magnum bottles age better, but that is not true. These bottles are usually filled using two regular bottles and manually corked. These wines are only for show. Buy a magnum if you value showing off more than drinking. 1.5 liters.

Various wine bottle silhouettes with text labels.

Pretentious Bottle Sizes

Are you a total asshole? Then here are the bottle sizes you should buy.

  • Jeroboam (AKA Double Magnum): 3 liters
  • Rehoboam (AKA Jeroboam): 4.5 liters
  • Methuselah (AKA Imperial): 6 liters
  • Salmanazar: 9 liters
  • Balthazar: 12 liters
  • Nebuchadnezzar: 15 liters
  • Melchior: 18 liters
  • Solomon: 20 liters
  • Sovereign: 26 liters
  • Primat (AKA Goliath): 27 liters
  • Melchizedek (AKA Midas): 30 liters

The Practicality of Bottle Sizes

While larger bottle sizes may seem impressive, they are often impractical for everyday use. For most wine enthusiasts, standard bottle sizes provide the perfect balance between storage convenience and consumption. Here are a few reasons why you might reconsider purchasing oversized bottles:

  1. Storage Challenges: Larger bottles require more space and special storage conditions to maintain the wine’s quality.
  2. Serving Difficulties: Handling and pouring from oversized bottles can be cumbersome and may require additional tools or assistance.
  3. Aging and Quality: While some large-format bottles are beneficial for aging wines, not all are filled with the same quality of wine. It’s essential to research and ensure that the wine inside matches the impressive exterior.

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