Wine bottles have become a recognisable uniform for what’s inside – region, grape variety, and more – but this wasn’t always the case.
Château Lafite Rothschild’s Frederic Domingo takes us on a journey through the history of bottling.
Until as recently as the early 20th Century, bottle shape, where and how bottling took place, format, and glass colour were a moveable feast. But while conventions and practicalities eventually led to the glassware with which we’re now familiar, greater understanding of environmental issues has prompted wine producers to rethink – and in some cases, redesign – the bottle.
Many of the measures and language we use for wine have evolved from historic bottling conventions. Until the 1920s, bottling was the responsibility of wine merchants, rather than the châteaux. «Wine was marketed and sold by the barrel to traders» explains Frederic Domingo – the man in charge of tastings and tours at Château Lafite Rothschild. «One barrel, or tonneau, equated to 200 gallons – approximately 900 litres».
The measure ‘tonne’ has its root in ‘tonneau’. But while sales were made in barrels, they were delivered in barriques. «One barrique – the measure in which the wine was actually transported – equates to a quarter of a barrel, which is roughly 50 gallons».
The traders who bought direct from the châteaux took charge of the bottling. «For the sake of simple bookkeeping, a barrel was considered to add up to 300 bottles» Frederic says. «It was this division that led to the standard bottle size of 75 centilitres». This method of calculation originates from the British market, which dominated the era, determining the dimensions of barrels, bottles, and even wooden crates. «Wine producers devised crates to hold six or twelve bottles, because six bottles equated to one imperial gallon (4.5 litres). This made the calculations simple for bottled sales in Britain».
As the bottlers, merchants were free to make their own choices about shape and colour. These only became standardised much later, when Châteaux began to do their own bottling. «A bottle in 1858 from a different vineyard wouldn’t have had the same shape, even if it had been bottled at the same place» says Frederic. «And the names of bottles, like la Bordelaise or la Bourguignonne, came about over time through the repeated production of a similar bottle shape in the same region, which would then become known as la Bordelaise (for example) by default».
There’s a glorious living archive of this evolution in the cellar at Lafite. «The bottles we have here in the Château date back to 1797. Around that time, the Château had a new manager – Mr. De Goudal, chosen by Jean de Witt, Dutch owner at the time who was the first to think of creating a wine reserve at Lafite. He arranged with the wine traders to send back bottles from each barrel, for the Château to keep in stock. This is why the register starts in 1797. But it’s quite remarkable to think that it wasn’t until around 1924 (the exact timeframe falls some time between the 1920s and 1930s) that they first thought of bottling on the estate – and the aim then was to control production».
Hold my glass, we hear you cry. There are older wine bottles that say mise en bouteille au château on the label. But this is a common misconception – these are antique bottles, which have been labeled later. «In 1868, there could have been 30, 40, or even 50 different labels, as each merchant bottled their order» Frederic says. «Merchants would include their trading name. We have a bottle from 1858, which has two ‘T’s in Lafitte. This was a common mistake – there was Maison Lafitte, the bankers, and a Château Lafitte on the other side of the river from us. For some of the wartime bottles, the word Rothschild has been placed underneath, while the bottling date doesn’t always line up with the vintage – the bottling for 1939, for instance, actually took place in 1942. So you get this historical narrative through the labeling».
And if you’ve ever wondered why it’s ten green bottles, you’re about to find out. Green glass gives wine the best protection against UV light. This is why clear glass has that greenish hue, and it’s due to the copper and lead content – but fear not, the metals are embedded in the glass, and don’t transfer into the wine. The clearer the bottle, the lower the copper content.
So it’s not just the labels, but the bottles themselves that serve as historical reference points. Like so many materials during the war years, lead was in short supply – most of the available supply had been put to producing ammunition, while nearly all copper was needed for agricultural use. «You can see from the colour of the 1939, 1942 and 1945 bottles at Lafite that through these years the glass had a far lower copper and lead content» Frederic explains. «After 1945, it became much easier to get hold of these metals again, and the classic colour re-emerged».
These days, more modern glassmaking techniques have reduced the need for lead and copper. Less copper means weaker light protection, but the glass itself is less prone to degrading. And we’ve all heard that clear glass takes the most processing, which brings us to recycling.
«A modern clear glass is copper-free, but it still contains other metals» says Frederic. «To achieve that aquamarine tint in modern glass, you have to add silicon dioxide, which in turn introduces chemical agents, making it harder to recycle efficiently».
This has influenced thinking about modern bottling, in the context of the Domaines Barons de Rothschild Lafite estates’ ecological transformation. «When we looked at redesigning the Château Rieussec bottle, as well as that of the R de Rieussec, we knew it needed to be as environmentally-friendly as possible. We abandoned the traditional transparent Sauternes glass, choosing Post-Consumer Recycled (PCR) glass instead. It’s 95% recycled, and it’s perfectly imperfect».
Since 2022, the Rieussec bottle has been proudly carrying the flag for eco-friendly bottling. And it’s not just the glass – the cork, and the specially-designed cord that holds it to the bottle – are all sourced as locally as possible and intended to be reused instead of recycled. Even the crate in which the bottles depart the Château these days is recycled cardboard – a long way from the 18th Century wooden crates that started it all off.