Curious Questions: Why are wine bottles all pretty much the same shape and colour?

We drink 36 billion bottles of wine a year and, with a few exceptions, almost all of them come in wine bottles that share essentially the same design. Martin Fone wonders why.

Drinks go in and out of fashion, but wine has stood the test of time. Archaeological evidence shows that wineries were in production in ancient Armenia as long ago as 4100 BC and earthenware containers on the site, known as kvevris and used in the production of wine, date from the seventh millennium. Wine was traded extensively by the Phoenicians who introduced it to the civilisations around the Mediterranean.

The drink found an even wider audience as the Roman Empire extended its reach. Today, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations, the equivalent of 36 billion bottles of wine are produced worldwide each year.

It doesn’t take a genius to recognise that storing wine is a tricky task, but it does take a spark of genius to work out how to do it successfully. Obviously, the storage container needs to be robust but not so heavy as to be difficult to move. It needs to be air-tight, otherwise the wine will oxidise, and to be made of a material which will not interact with the liquid. Last and not least, the vessel must be capable of being opened and resealed as often as necessary.

Until the arrival of the glass bottle in the early 17th century, wine was stored (and transported) initially in amphorae — two-handled ceramic vessels lined with beeswax, favoured by the Phoenicians, ancient Greeks and Romans — and later in barrels made from oak or pine, an idea prototyped by the Gauls for storing their beer and then adopted by the Romans with some gusto. The early glass bottles, developed by Venetian glassworks, turned out to be ideal for wine, offering a chemically-neutral and airtight container. The problem was that the process was phenomenally expensive: the glass was very delicate and only the very rich could afford to have their wine stored in them.

“Sir Kenelm killed a man in a duel, had to fake his own death to escape the consequences of an affair with Marie de Medici”

For the English, the storage of wine was a very real problem. According to WineGB 15.6 million bottles were produced in England and Wales in 2018, but in days of yore the climate was not conducive to growing grapes of a quality to produce something vaguely drinkable. As a major importer of wine, England had a significant incentive to find a handier way of storing the stuff.

Sir Kenelm Digby (1603 – 1665) now enters our story.

Digby was what one might call a larger than life character with a penchant for scrapes and adventures — a trait he inherited from his father, who was implicated in the Gunpowder Plot and hung, drawn, and quartered for his troubles. Sir Kenelm killed a man in a duel, had to fake his own death to escape the consequences of an affair with Marie de Medici, the widow of Henry IV of France, and operated for a while as a pirate.

In December 1627, he won royal approval to take a ship bristling with guns into the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean, launching a successful attack on some French ships anchored in the Venetian port of Scanderoon on the Turkish coast. Returning in triumph in February 1628, Digby was dismayed to find that the authorities had to quickly disavow his actions for fear of reprisals on English merchants sailing in the Mediterranean.

With his tail firmly between his legs, Digby retreated to the calmer waters of Gresham College where he developed his interest in matters scientific and alchemical. He developed a substance, the ‘Powder of Sympathy’, which was supposed to possess magical healing properties. It is said that he dosed up his wife, Lady Venetia, with the potion when she was ill. Alas, it didn’t work; she died, leaving Digby mortified.

Engraved portrait of Kenelm Digby and title page from his Choice and Experimented Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery of 1668.

Engraved portrait of Sir Kenelm Digby and title page from a 1668 edition of his Choice and Experimented Receipts in Physick and Chirurgery.

In 1615 King James the First had ordered that England’s precious stock of timber be used for building ships rather than providing fuel for furnaces. Henceforth English furnaces were fired by coal, the consequence of which, for glass making, was that hotter temperatures were achieved, making for stronger glass. Sir Robert Mansell had perfected the technique for firing glass in coal furnaces and in 1623 was given a monopoly to set up glassworks, making his fortune.

In 1633 Digby, by now experimenting with glass production, received a visit from a former manager of Mansell’s glassworks, James Howell. Howell wanted Digby to apply some of his wondrous Powder on a wound he had sustained breaking up a duel. Astonishingly, the powder worked its magic and a friendship was forged.

“This glass was now strong enough to store wines with high internal pressure, making the production of drinks like champagne possible”

The combination of Digby’s alchemical knowledge and Mansell’s technical expertise also worked wonders. They discovered that the heat of a furnace could be increased still further by using tunnels to draw in oxygen. They also saw that the higher the temperature, the stronger and thicker the glass. Within a couple of years Digby had perfected a technique for producing a bottle that was a characteristic dark green or brown in colour, all the better for protecting the wine from ultraviolet rays, with strong, thick glass walls and a distinctive ‘punt’, the conical depression at the bottom of the bottle which strengthens it at its weakest point.

Under licence from Mansell, Digby opened a furnace in the Forest of Dean at Newnham-on-Severn, an area with a plentiful supply of coal, and cracked the problem of how to mass produce strong, cheap bottles. This type of glass was now strong enough to store wines with high internal pressure, making the production of drinks like champagne possible. To this day it is still called verre Anglais by the French.

But misfortune dogged Digby. He fought as a Cavalier in the Civil War and was forced to flee the country when the Roundheads triumphed. His rivals were quick to claim the kudos for inventing his cheaper, stronger form of bottle. However, following the Restoration, Digby got his just desserts when in 1662 Parliament awarded him a patent for his endeavours. At last he was recognised as the inventor of the modern wine bottle. Much good it did him as he died three years later.

To us Digby’s wine bottle would look odd, having a fat bottom and a short neck. Over time, though, modifications were made, reducing its bottom and extending the neck. In 1821, Ricketts of Bristol was awarded a patent for developing a machine which could knock out identically sized bottles of a shape that we would recognise today.

Next time you pour a glass of wine, raise a toast to Sir Kenelm Digby, rightly described by the biographer, John Aubrey, as ‘the most accomplished Cavalier of his time’.