A Brief Guide to Wine Bottle Design

Wine bottles come in a set spectrum of subtly different, yet instantly recognizable, shapes. But why? Jennifer Fiedler on the stories behind wine's most iconic bottles, plus a few renegade designs to look out for.

Wine Bottle Shapes

When we talk about wine, we like to say it’s what’s in the bottle that counts. But the actual bottle matters, too. For something so obvious sounding—what could be more basic than a wine bottle?—there’s heaps of variation, from the classic shapes to the hilariously flamboyant ones (ahem, verdicchio).

But bottle size—both in shape and volume—used to vary much more. Glass bottles began to be commonly used in the 17th century, often in bladder- or onion-type shapes that were stored upright. According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, the adoption of the cork closure prompted a switch to the more modern cylindrical shape, which allowed bottles to be stored on their sides. Regional variations of bottle shapes emerged thereafter, though finding a definitive answer as to the who’s and why’s of the equation isn’t always easy.

“The usual point of view is that when bottles were being developed there was less travel between regions, and thus each of them developed bottle shapes independently,” said wine critic Allen Meadows, of Burghound.com, in an email. He points out, though, that Burgundian wine merchants were already traveling abroad in the 18th century. “There would have been extensive knowledge of what was going on in other wine regions. Moreover, the first glass factory in France was already operating by 1752, which meant that these merchants could have ordered whatever shape they wanted with relative ease.”

The regional shapes that we know today emerged after the 1970s, when the E.U. standardized the 750mL size, ultimately tampering down on outliers, like the more traditional 500mL Bordeaux bottle and the slightly larger Burgundy and Champagne bottles, among many others.

With the advent of better manufacturing and branding campaigns for export markets, wine bottle shapes nowadays have more to do with marketing than anything else. But it can still be useful to understand the differences, primarily because the shape a winemaker chooses is often a clue to his or her intentions or, in some cases, stylistic proclivities. For instance, a Carmelo Patti cabernet sauvignon from Argentina gets bottled in a Bordeaux-style bottle to be aligned with the European tradition, while Armand de Brignac Brut Gold gets a flashy gold bottle so it can be recognized from across the room (or in a dark nightclub).

Here’s a breakdown of some of the most common—and some of the most distinctive—bottles on wine shelves today.

The Classics

These European shapes (organized from left to right) are the most recognizable and have been adopted by winemakers around the world.

Wine Bottle Shapes

Burgundy (1)
The Burgundy bottle, with lightly sloped shoulders and a pear-shaped figure, is now used worldwide for Burgundian grapes (pinot noir and chardonnay), as well as syrah, grenache, chenin blanc and others. Meadows says the origins of the specific shape are murky. “My theory, though I underscore that it’s no more than that, is that the different bottle shapes allowed the would-be 18th- and early 19th-century drinker to easily distinguish the type of wine inside the bottle,” he says. “Add to this that labels would have been of little use beyond perhaps the vintage because the illiteracy rate was very high in those days.” Meadows theorizes that distinctive shapes emerged as a way to tell apart one region’s wine from another, and then stayed that way because there was no reason to change it.

Bordeaux (2)
The modern Bordeaux wine bottle shape, stocky with broad shoulders, is usually used to bottle heavier reds, such as cabernet sauvignon. Before the E.U. standardized the 750mL size, however, the more traditional Bordeaux bottle was 500mL and more rounded. Jane Anson, author of Bordeaux Legends and a contributing editor at Decanter, says credit for the shape is usually attributed to Pierre Mitchell, who built Château du Tertre in Margaux in 1736. He founded the first glass blowing workshop for the area in 1723 and is believed to have invented the jeroboam shape as well.

The modern bottle shape, designed for export and aging, protects the wine from bumpy overseas journeys while the prominent shoulder is thought to help catch the sediment that forms when a wine ages. Prestige cabernets and other pricey wines are sometimes bottled in taller, heavier versions of the standard Bordeaux 750mL and function as the equivalent of an Escalade—weighty and pompous, but not actually safer than its more nimble siblings.

Port (3)
In the early 18th century, port bottles were squat with a short neck and could only be stored upright, as they were designed for refilling from the cask in local markets. By the end of the century, the more cylindrical bottles, which could be stored on their side and sealed with a cork, became popular. In the 19th century, bottle manufacturing lowered the cost of making bottles, which allowed for the invention of vintage port.

Madeira (4)
The broad, hefty bottles, often with a bulge in the neck, used to bottle Madeira are very similar to the ones used by port producers, according to Mannie Berk, of Rare Wine Co. “[It] was undoubtedly a parallel development,” he says. “The body shape is well-suited for stacking the bottles horizontally, but many (including us) believe that Madeira is best stored standing up.”

Berk also notes that since Madeira used to be shipped by cask and bottled locally in whatever was handy, “19th-century Madeiras bottled on the U.S. East Coast were often in the same style bottle as rye whiskey.”

Riesling (5)
The narrow, lanky shape of the “flutes” used to bottle riesling in the Rhine, Mosel and Alsace is thought to have evolved “to be stackable for transporting and cellaring,” says Lars Carlberg, who writes an online guide to the wines of the Mosel. In a post from 2014, he notes that before the 19th century, wine was transported by cask, and the first bottles to be used for storage and transportation were French Champagne bottles, a byproduct of French invasions in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Many variations of the flute exist. According to Carlberg, there are two heights for the 750mL bottle: 330mm and 350mm, the latter of which is more frequently used for an estate’s top wines. Bottle color can vary too, including shades of blues, greens, browns, brownish-orange and white (clear). Rhine bottles are commonly brown, while Saar and Mosel offerings tend to be green. Blue, which was popular in the Mosel before the 1920s, is also coming back in fashion, says Carlberg.

Wine Bottle Shapes

Silvaner Bocksbeutel (6)
The Bocksbeutel, a rounded flattened flask shape, originated in Germany. The name translates to “goat’s scrotum,” but is likely a reference to a type of bag used to carry prayer books, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, which also notes that the shape emerged in the 18th century in conjunction with Würzburger Steinwein, but became popular in Franken after World War I. Today, the fanciful shape is used for a number of wines from the E.U., including silvaner, terlaner, agiorgitiko and a handful of Portuguese wines.

Chianti Fiasco (7)
Though these Italian straw-covered bottles represent the height of wine-related kitsch today, they were once functional: Hand-blown bottles were more delicate and rounded, so the straw helped to protect the glass. Mentions of fiascos can be found as early as the mid-14th century in Boccaccio’s The Decameron, and the bottle shape pops up in a number of Renaissance paintings.

According to food and wine historian, Jeremy Parzen, the dominance of the fiasco in Chianti was challenged in the later part of the 19th century when Tuscan producer Barone Ricasoli began using the Bordeaux bottle as he modernized his operation. But shaking the region’s association with the rustic bottle was challenging. “Even with Ricasoli’s push to bring Chianti into the modern era of winemaking, it wasn’t until the 1960s and the abolishment of share-cropping that Chianti really began to come into focus as a commercial brand,” says Parzen.

Verdicchio (8)
Fazi Battaglia, a heavy-weight producer in the Marche region of Italy, helped popularize verdicchio stateside in the 1970s by introducing this wacky bottle, which is alternately described as being amphora- or fish-shaped. Other producers followed suit to capitalize on the wine’s success and the light, salty wine became inextricably linked to the shape. Contemporary verdicchio from producers who want to escape that association tend to be bottled in Burgundy-style bottles.

Champagne (9)
Though the shape is similar to Burgundy bottles, these specimens are heftier for a reason: physics. They’re designed to withhold the pressure of carbonization, and so are made from heavier glass and have a larger punt. The English generally get credit for the bottle shape and weight, which were developed in the late 17th century in near-lockstep with scientist Christopher Merret’s 1662 discovery of adding sugar to wine to create a bubble-forming secondary fermentation.

The basic Champagne bottle looks like a larger, heavier Burgundy bottle. But perhaps more so than any other wine category, Champagne bottles tend toward fanciful and unique shapes, a trend modeled after the success of prestige cuvées in special bottles such as Cristal and Dom Pérignon.

Flaçon (10)
Laurent-Perrier bottles its Cuvée Rosé and Grand Siècle in rounded Champagne bottles based on the flaçon, the OG Champagne bottle. The distinctive lip of the Cuvée Rosé is a nod to when the bottles used to be handblown and then detached. The punt is deeper than a regular Champagne bottle, which allows for easy riddling (when the sediment from fermentation is collected by rotating the bottle slowly over a long period).

Krug (11)
Krug’s bottle, with its loping shoulders and fat bottom, is slightly narrower than the Laurent Perrier Rosé bottle. Henri and Rémi Krug introduced the shape in 1972.

The Outliers

Beyond the classic shapes, though, there’s a raft of hey-look-at-me type of bottles that tell the customer that there’s something a little different about what’s inside. This category contains multitudes, but here’s a breakdown of a few bottles we were curious about.

Wine Bottle Shapes

Los Bermejos (12)
This Canary Island winery, helmed by Ignacio Valdera, bottles its wines in bulbous top-heavy bottles with a pouring spout cut into the glass. According to brand manager Sarah Gallaher, the winemaking team chose distinctive shape, which is based on old olive oil bottles, for the simplest reason: “They just liked them.”

COS (13)
When the trio of then-college students who founded formative Sicilian winery COS bought an old cellar for the operations in 1991, they serendipitously found an old bottle from the Vittoria area in the building. Public relations manager Joanna Dubrawska says it’s difficult to pinpoint the era in which the old bottle was used, but the cellar itself dates to the 1860s. To honor local history, they took the stout shape to a bottle manufacturer who replicated it for their amphora-made wine. The shape is now trademarked and known in the manufacturer’s catalog as the “COS bottle.”

Villa Sparina (14)
This Piedmont winery bottles its Gavi di Gavi in straw-yellow, amphora-shaped bottles, which are said to mimic the first bottles used at the estate in the 18th century.

Sánchez Romate (15)
This Jerez producer utilizes a number of bottle shapes for its range of brandies, sherries and vinegars. But it’s the long-necked, squat, bulbous shape used for their top-of-the-line sherries that is the most striking. Borja Leal, of Sánchez Romate, says the shape “makes a tribute to those bottles used by the Jerez industry a long, long time ago.” The bottom-heavy bottle was thought to be more stable for exporting wine overseas.

Feuillatte Palmes d’Or (16)
Master marketer Nicholas Feuillatte launched this cuvee in 1986 in a distinctive black dimpled bottle, which he has said is an homage to a young opera singer he fell in love with and the black pearls she wore during performances.

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  • Alex

    Why not mention the clavelin – that’s pretty iconic, too!