The first efficient storage containers for wine were large pottery jars known as amphorae until the Romans began to blow glass into rounded bottles, which were probably stored in sand. This rounded shape was abandoned in the 1730s for bottles with straighter sides that could be more conveniently stacked on their sides. In 1821 when H. Ricketts & Co. Glassworks of Bristol, England patented a machine that molded glass bottles, the modern wine bottle was born. Traditional shapes that had developed in various European wine regions were then standardized, mass produced, and shared by all. Five particular designs, from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Alsace and Mosel, and from Southern Spain and Portugal, where the English obtained fortified wines, became the norm. At a glance, these shapes allow us to identify the general content of most bottles before we read the labels.
Bordeaux bottles have straight sides and tall shoulders and are used by wineries throughout the world that make Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and blends of these and other Bordeaux varietals. The shape is commonly used for the noble red wines of Italy and Spain as well. Glass color is usually dark green, originally the result of impurities but later understood to protect wine from sunlight. The design is well suited for red wines that produce sediment as they age, because the sediment collects in the shoulder of the bottle as the wine is poured. The same bottle is used for Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, the primary white wines of Bordeaux.
Wider Burgundy bottles have gently sloping shoulders and are used for Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay, the principal varietals of Burgundy. The Rhone style is similar to Burgundy and used for Syrah, Grenache, and the blended wines of the region.
Champagne and sparkling wine from other areas must be bottled in heavy glass with a deeply indented punt at the bottom to withstand six atmospheres of pressure, three times the pressure inside an average car tire. Without the punt, the bottom could easily blow out. The punt has the additional benefit of being a thumb grip so that the bottle can be held for pouring. The shape has a long thin neck with a lip, around which the wire basket can be fastened to secure the cork.
The Mosel in Germany and Alsace in France use a very tall, slender bottle, usually green in color. The Rhine in Germany uses the same bottle although its color is brown. Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, and Muller Thurgau are bottled in this shape there and in the New World.
The fortified wines of Spain and Portugal, Port, Madeira, and Sherry, are typically bottled in heavy Bordeaux shaped bottles although Port, which ages for decades and throws sediment, is often found in bottles with bulges in the neck that capture the sediment when the wine is poured or decanted.
In other words, even before you read the label, the bottle shape can give you information about the contents.