Opinion Saying Goodbye to the Glass Wine Bottle

Saying Goodbye to the Glass Wine Bottle

Bottling is just one of many indignities a wine goes through before consumption.
© Shutterstock | Bottling is just one of many indignities a wine goes through before consumption.
Is it time to farewell glass and find better ways to serve wine? Oliver Styles is open to persuasion.
By Oliver Styles | Posted Sunday, 25-Oct-2020

It was a relatively unusual moment but, for a couple of months earlier this year, I loathed the wine bottle.

Not the unified concept of wine and holder and stopper and capsule; or some wider, philosophical signifier/signified thing; I was angry with the glass wine bottle.

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A wine I loved, a wine I had tasted regularly for the preceding six months, was not evolving in the way I had expected (in fact, it was evolving in the opposite direction) and I was blaming its being cooped up in a 750ml receptacle. Whatever was happening, six months on from being bottled, the wine was tasting unexpectedly different.

Now most wine people would use the term "bottle shock" for this kind of thing but to be honest, tasting the wine a month or two after it was bottled (patience, I'm told, is a virtue) you could only describe the wine's state as "bottle elation". It was glorious. I'd been lucky to taste the wine prior to going to bottle and it tasted more or less exactly the same either side of that operation. If anything, it tasted better. But, after six months, it was a different story.

Some people say there's a delayed bottle shock but I wasn't convinced this was quite the case here. In my mind, the bottle was at fault – at least the effect of putting wine in a small container for six months was the culprit – but it wasn't the act of putting wine into that container that was the problem; the wine had had plenty of time to settle into its new dwelling – it was the container.

Now to be fair to the humble (and sometimes not so humble: ref. Napa, Argentina, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, etc.) wine bottle, I actually think bottle shock is a revoltingly unfair term. In most commercial wineries, the act of putting a wine to bottle is preceded by a litany of manipulations and operations and yet our catch-all term for the effect this has on a wine is to blame the final act.

It's the equivalent of blaming sulfites, or that last schooner of Port, or that last dram of whiskey, for your hangover. A wine going to bottle can be blended, adjusted for taste (given sugar, or acidified or de-acidified), fined (which runs the gamut from egg white to copper via things like casein or isinglass), stabilized (anything from being chilled for a week or two to getting bentonite or even carboxymethylcellulose – which sounds scary and that's about it) and filtered (which encompasses everything you like from ensuring no bugs end up in your bottle to barring anything at all alive, no matter how microscopic, from being in there), all before being put in a bottle. 

That's like being woken up, slapped around the face a few times, given a shave, a mud pack, put in a fridge for a few days, thawed, prodded, forced to drink four liters of half-fat milk, squeezed, given a quick tummy-tuck, a spray tan and beaten over the head with a copper pipe before being told to go and stand for a few months in a glasshouse with a cork on your head. The last bit sounds like bliss. I mean I don't want to overplay the anthropomorphism here but it should really be called "bottle relief".

In this particular instance, though, I think it was the bottle. I won't go into the ins and outs of it all – you'll have to trust me a little here – and, to be honest, I couldn't say scientifically that my reasoning was on solid ground. I just believe that being enclosed for a about six months in a bottle wasn't good for it, and these days it seems belief carries the same weight as fact, so we'll press on.

What I think had occurred (spoiler: at last tasting, the wine is completely back to normal and developing gloriously, although I don't have that many bottles left, obviously) was that the wine had got a bit reductive in bottle.

For those not used to the concept, reduction is the opposite of oxidation. It takes a few forms but suffice to say it's like sniffing a vacuum-sealed packet of frankfurters as the packet is being opened; it's like an un-aerated teenager's bedroom; it's like huffing Jeremy Renner's Hurt Locker bomb suit the moment he peels it off. You get the idea. It smells ... enclosed. And for that – to a degree, unfairly, I should say – I blamed the bottle.

Selling wine from kegs makes just as much sense as selling it in bottles.
© Roberson | Selling wine from kegs makes just as much sense as selling it in bottles.

Bottling it

There is, after all, something odd about the wine bottle. Every day, across the globe, throughout hundreds of bottling lines, millions of round pegs are placed in square holes. Each 12-bottle cardboard "case" contains 48 empty corners and, because of the taper on a bottle, is mostly air in the top quarter.

It's as if the world has adapted and evolved around our own blinkered traditionalism in the form of a 750ml glass cylinder. If you want to induce nausea in a bottling line manager, suggest the world move to a square bottle. It's not just bottling line supervisors, either. Seeing Haut-Brion in a square bottle is about as likely as getting world peace. At the very least, could someone not design a shape that tessellates so that bottles could be stacked end-to-end in a smaller, less-airy case?

Also: 750ml. I know it's more or less the capacity of seasoned glass-blower's lungs and I admit that it is relatively handy size, but what actually is it? Is it just the right amount for two people over dinner? Or seven people at lunch? Granted, it's probably more than enough for one person in a sitting (although we won't get on a high horse about that will we?). Can't we just go for one-liter bottles, have a case of 10 wines and be done with it? I know 12 is a great number and that it divides into quarters and thirds but go on, find me someone for whom this is an issue.

Imagine also if a standard bottle of Claret did not evolve within the lifetime of the owner. Imagine if it gained complexity and interest only long after its original owner died (a bit like magnums). Would not that format have been quickly dropped in favor of a size of wine vessel which gave its owner some chance to mature their portfolio within their lifetime? Or imagine the inverse: imagine your Margaux matured within five years of being in a bottle; imagine it simply matured too quickly. Would we not have found a different vessel?

It's also – and let's be brutally honest here – a remarkably inefficient form of packaging. Even putting heavy bottles aside, a standard glass bottle (I just weighed an empty, screwcapped Martinborough Chardonnay) comes to 620g. That's more than 80 percent of the weight of its contents. I have a one-liter thermos flask that weighs less. It's a bit like selling bread in a wooden box which, while admittedly very cool and clearly a longer-term container, seems a bit much for a consumable. Unless, of course, you start taking the box back to the shop.

So before this article starts getting quoted by the people pushing bags-in-boxes or canned wines or plastic or whatever, I'm not suggesting that these are better alternatives. There are lots of positives to glass – and who doesn't love a nice bottle of wine. I just wonder if it's time to rethink our relationship with it, if not just simply the way we use glass bottles then just a wider acceptance and cultural admittance for doing things like have wine in keg and on tap.

Go into somewhere like the underground vaults of Gordon's Wine Bar in London and tell me that place wouldn't accommodate a return to butts of sherry being rumbled down the steps and having taps knocked into them for the punters to have by the schooner. Back to the good old days. 

Maybe this is how we revive the likes of Sherry: keg it and sell it on tap in cool bars worldwide. Maybe it was the bottle that was the problem? Not for me, I'll admit. If they get to kegging Madeira I'll open my own bar.

Furthermore, in the large-volume, fast moving consumer goods arena, there's no reason we can't advocate for more reusable approach. The wine bar model too, could easily adopt this. The issue is us.

I love, for instance, that in Switzerland you can grab a crown-capped, one-liter bottle of Dole (a Valais blend of Pinot Noir and Gamay) from the bottle shop that has been reused numerous times. They come with a paper-y label and two white rings of scratch marks around the base and shoulder of the bottle from their numerous trips through the washer/sterilizer and down the bottling line again.

It's not as if we're having to re-invent the wheel either – all the hardware exists. Only yesterday, I filled several 20-liter beer kegs with wine and slapped a magnum label on the side. It was done in minutes and the only dry goods involved were the labels. One small stainless keg was the equivalent of 26 corks and more than 16kg of glass (and that's not counting the paper and the foil). The keg is no more or less suited to its function (if anything it's more robust than glass) and I was happy that the wine inside the keg was in as good a shape as the wine being squirted into the bottles next door.

Now, if I kept that keg for six months would it go a bit reduced like my original bottle that started this whole train of thought? I don't know, but it's entirely probable it might have gone the same way – if it had been been untouched. So while I might have been initially a bit unfair on the bottle, had I been refilling from a keg of that wine rather than consuming (and that is kind of the right word) five or six bottles in the same timeframe, would there not be the possibility that the wine in keg was a bit more "alive", for want of a much better word?

Would there also have been the possibility that I my hypothetical keg would be empty within six months? Well...

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