The bottle lines are drawn
from Grapes, by Thor Iverson
I’ll never forget my first magnum.
It was in Alsace, and after a particularly lengthy tasting, the owner offered a gift: an oversized container of his house’s best riesling. The traditional Alsatian bottle is called a flute: taller than average, thin, and tapering to a graceful neck. It’s the same bottle that’s used in most of the German-speaking world, and it’s a somewhat rigid, almost stern receptacle that represents the wine inside quite well.
But in magnum (two bottle) size, it’s…well, it’s positively priapic. You know those Japanese pillow books in which the man sports an appendage larger and thicker than either of his legs? Well, it kinda looks like that. The girl I was with mused that she might leave me at the winery and continue the journey with this new companion. I, on the other hand, wondered how I was possibly going to fit the whole thing into my luggage. Those familiar with unusually large…bottles…will recognize the problem.
Back in the day, wine bottles signified their place of origin. A flute meant Germany, Germanic (like Austria), or post-Germanic (like Alsace and northeastern Italy), and the choice of green or brown glass indicated regions within Germany. A straight bottle with a quick shoulder (the part where it turns towards the neck) was a symbol of Bordeaux, while a slightly larger, more graceful, and decidedly more feminine bottle with a gently-sloping shoulder traditionally came from Burgundy. And there were others, too: a sort of bulbous thing for Provençal rosé, a fat-bottomed, straw-covered fiasco for Chianti, and so on.
Some of this still holds true. The flute remains, mandated by the regions in which it’s employed (though a few mavericks have started to use “foreign” shapes, largely for export markets), and most Burgundy still comes in its traditional container. The Bordeaux bottle is typically employed by wineries making similarly-conceived cabernet sauvignon/merlot blends, pinot noir producers tend to stick with the Burgundy shape, and the Germanic grapes (riesling and gewürztraminer, along with a few others) usually end up in flutes, whether they’re from Oregon or New Zealand.
But that’s pretty much where the tradition ends. The Chianti fiasco, for example, is only used by a few very low-quality producers; most have moved on to traditional Bordeaux shapes. And even within each category, there’s a wide range of variations. Angled sides, oversized flanges (the rims at the top of the neck), etchings, thoroughly opaque or bright blue glass, unusual heights…even bottles shaped like fish.
The most common variation, however, is size and its constant companion, thickness. For reasons that are no doubt well-supported by expensive marketing surveys, wineries have concluded that fatter, heavier bottles indicate prestige to the average consumer. In other words, it’s not the length, it’s the girth. Up until recently, this has been helpful to the observant consumer, because it’s been a safe assumption that heavy, thick bottles contain wine done in a modern style: more intense fruit, less acidity, a lavish use of new oak, and all-around power given prominence over elegance.
Whether or not this makes any sense isn’t up to me to decide, though it has always struck me that these sorts of bottles are expensive, which (in additional to the prestige-driven price hike) means you’re spending a lot of money on something other than what you’re buying the wine for: the liquid inside. I can tell you that retailers are not at all fond of the trend, because hauling cases of the things is a back-breaking exercise. But these days, the popularity of the form has led to a lot of very traditional producers adopting the bottles in an effort to compete with their more overtly-endowed brethren. So the generalization about style no longer holds quite as well as it used to. And there is one unquestionably negative effect: the bottles don’t fit well into traditional wine racking. They simply won’t pass through single-bottle slots, and they don’t rest well atop each other in multi-bottle spaces.
But then, there’s the bocksbuetel. You’ll rarely see it here, but in the German region of Franconia, it’s the legally-mandated bottle shape. It’s round, flat, and squat, and the name coupled with that shape has led many historians of German wine to conclude that the name is derived from the, uh, low-dangling scrotum of a goat. No, really.
So, get a few Franconian wines together with an Alsatian magnum, and you’ve got yourself a party. Or some really salacious modern art. Hey, maybe there’s an NEA grant in this…
(First published in stuff@night, 2008.)
Copyright © Thor Iverson.