In our first column dedicated to de-mystifying wine, we’re taking a look at how the packaging offers tell-tale signs of the contents. This should help you to feel less overwhelmed when visiting your wine merchant.
It’s something we don’t think about much, but there’s a slightly unhealthy relationship between those of us who sell wine–and profess to know so much about it–and those who buy it and are typically humble and perhaps intimidated by their perceived lack of knowledge. (“I don’t know much about wine, but I know what I like!”) So, in this column, we’re going to see if we can break this barrier down a bit. This month, we’ll begin by taking a look at the bottle itself.
There are no hard-and-fast rules about bottle shape. However, there are some conventions which are widely observed around the world, and particularly in France and most of the New World.
A Bordeaux bottle is typically a straight-sided cylinder with the minimally rounded shoulders and neck. Consequently, red wine producers using Bordeaux-associated grapes very often use the same style of bottle, wherever they are in the world. So, a Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or Malbec is likely (although not guaranteed) to come in a ‘straight edge’ bottle. Typically, even New World producers stick to classic blends, so you’ll see lots of Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends in Bordeaux-style bottles, and–to a lesser extent–Malbec.
Blending grapes associated with two distant regions (e.g. Bordeaux’s Merlot and the Rh?ne’s Syrah) is rare. Broadly, the consensus is that the Romans got it right when they established the most popular regional blends in what later came to be France. The global exception is South Africa, which often features outlandish blends, as well as the creation of the only notable modern variety in red wine grapes–the Pinot Noir/Cinsault hybrid called Pinotage.
It would be rude not to mention that other countries–Italy and Spain spring immediately to mind–also produce world-class red and white wines, with their own ‘indigenous’ grape varieties and distinctive bottles.
Burgundy is traditionally bottled in the curved-shoulder bottle, as are Rh?ne wines from further south, and Loire wines from further north. So red grapes associated with those regions–Pinot Noir, Gamay, Grenache, Syrah–are also typically packaged in the softer-curved (more feminine?) bottle. Thus, before you even look at the label, you can assume a little about the style of the wine. Bordeaux-style bottles tend to contain more structured red wine, often with more oak and tannins. The curvy bottles are generally filled with softer red fruits and less oak. Beware though, there’s nothing to stop a modern producer from bucking the trend with the style of bottle, and some do.
With whites, it’s a bit more difficult. The noble Sauvignon Blanc grape is famously produced in both Bordeaux and the Loire region, so there’s less of a general norm around the shape among modern varietal (single-grape) wines. A white Bordeaux (usually Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon) will be straight-edged, but among New World producers there’s not really much impetus to follow suit. Among still Chardonnays, the most celebrated wines are historically from Burgundy, hence the round-shouldered bottle. But again, New World producers are less likely to stick to convention with whites.
It would be rude not to mention that other countries–Italy and Spain spring immediately to mind–also produce world-class red and white wines, with their own “indigenous” grape varieties and distinctive bottles. The stark truth, though, is this: it’s the association of noble grapes with French regions which has given us the typical bottles we see most often in the supermarkets today.
Next Month: The label at a glance–how to spot the wine you want quickly (and have a good laugh at a few fake ones).
HERE! Wine Club is run by Alec S Forsyth.
Alec started selling wine in France over twenty years ago, and is a proud holder of the Wines and Spirits Educations Trust (WSET) Higher Certificate in Wines and Spirits. He has been the head buyer for a local Dongguan wine merchant since 2011, and has been selling imported wines to the Dongguan cognoscenti for several years.
This introductory Wine Club features a stunning range of wines from both New and Old World producers. As this is the first issue, you can order the half-case–all six bottles–for just 488 RMB (normal price 678 RMB) and get free membership to the HERE! Wine Club (normally priced at 100RMB). Membership entitles you to at least 20% off every month’s offer.
Scan the QR code and follow the super-simple instructions to get your membership, and have your wine delivered to your home or office within five days.