Why do the wine bottles have different shapes?

—Noticing Nabobs of Nothingness, but Still Curious

Dear Noticing,

If you think wine is a hassle now, please know that a couple of hundred years ago various governments thought the whole bottled-at-the-chateau idea was itself rife for fraud. So if you wanted wine, you'd have to have your own bottles manufactured and send them to the chateau to be filled and sealed. (Fun fact: Some think that our standard wine-bottle size descends not from any particular big idea, just from the average size of a 19th-century glassblower's exhale.)


Winner, 2007 James Beard Award for Journalism

The different shapes of wine bottles, and the different colors, have something to do with whim and branding. It was considered attractive to package Chianti in wicker-bottom bottles, for instance, until it wasn't. And it has something to do with practical concerns. You need heavier bottles to counteract the internal pressure generated by Champagne, for instance, and darker bottles to protect age-worthy wines from light, which speeds deterioration. You'll often find wines meant to be drunk young, like rosés or fresh whites, packed in colorless glass, which is both less expensive than dark glass and shows off the wine's color.

Since we're talking fraud, though, please direct some attention to all the rigmarole around the cork. First there's the cork, which almost always has the name of the vineyard printed on it. Then there's a wax or foil seal that protects the cork. And sometimes there may even be an additional paper seal imprinted with government guarantees or tracking numbers. You know what all of this is? It's all the best fraud-protection devices of an earlier time: The seal and printed cork are your guarantee that your wine merchant or restaurant hasn't served someone else your Opus One and topped up the bottle with a box of Franzia.

Of course, none of this fraud protection could have envisioned a world where one wine-making facility would make everyone's wine, but it's interesting to consider that fraud protection has been an issue as long as wine has been sold. Old wine in new bottles indeed!

Dear Dara,

Why is all the cheap wine Australian? Or, you know what I mean.

—Wondering in Minneapolis

Dear Wondering,

We now have to ask the Libertarians to leave the room, lest they bust various veins in rage. It all started with government. First, in the 1960s, Australia decided it would have not a desert interior, but a green and verdant one—like the British Isles of their historical memory? Dunno. In any event, they started to build dams like crazy, and today three-quarters of the water in Australia goes to irrigation. A 2004 article in the Australian, an Aussie newspaper, said the Aussies use 900 liters of water per person per day, compared to us North Americans, who use 600 liters a day. (I'm guessing they added Canada in to make us feel better, but still.)

Anyhoo, in 1993, to speed up the process of turning their desert interior into a green and verdant vine land, they instituted a tax shelter that, literally, has daily ramifications in the liquor stores of Duluth, Bloomington, and all places in between. The Australian government changed its tax laws so that growers could write off the expense of buying and planting grape vines over the course of four years, instead of over the lifetime of the vines. Since they would be writing off the cost of this buying and planting before the grapes bore fruit, it became a massive loss for tax purposes, and thus sheltered other income. It wasn't until the late 1990s that the actual grape planting really got rolling; between 1997 and 2001 Australia's wine plantings almost doubled.

Meanwhile, the Australian dollar sank. It was super-low when those first cases of Yellow Tail showed up. It was worth 80 of our cents in 1996, sank to 50 cents five years later, and is now about back where it was. It took a few years for the various vines that were planted to come to maturity and start bearing fruit, but they did a few years ago, and here we are. The Australians have more grapes than they know what to do with, so they mess with them, and send them here and to Europe.

Mess with them how? Australian mega-producers also have massive state-of-the-art wine-making facilities (which they had to build once their grape supply doubled) and some engage in what wine traditionalists call "better wine-making through chemistry," manipulations such as using acid or enzymes to enhance fermentations and get deeper fruit extracts, adding sugar to boost alcohol levels, concentrating fruit musts, micro-oxygenation to essentially pre-age the wine, adding color additives like Mega Purple, and various manipulations to get the acid in a wine lowered, and the pH raised.

Then they put them in affordable bottles with critter labels. Ever seen that thing on the Yellow Tail bottle? That's actually not a kangaroo, but a yellow-footed rock wallaby, and its runaway success inspired a zillion critter followers. Look for animals on the labels of Wallaby Creek, Koala Blue, Little Penguin, Thirsty Lizard, and Four Emus, all out of Australia; Monkey Bay from New Zealand; and something called Burrowing Owl from Canada. According to the Nielsen ratings—yes, they do Nielsen ratings of wine—critter labels accounted for $600 million in wine sales last year.

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