Down with bodybuilder bottles

Bodybuilder wines are everywhere, but do we have to have bodybuilder bottles too?

Enough already! I have kept quiet on this subject for far too long but I just can’t contain myself any longer.

The subject of today’s sermon is bottles. Is there any hope that wine producers might think about a) their customers, b) those who sell their wines and c) the planet before deciding which sort of bottle to put their precious produce into? No, let’s be serious about this. Make that a) the planet and b) everything else, for what does it matter my wrestling unsuccessfully to fit a ridiculously tall bottle of Riesling into my refrigerator, or a shelf-stacker buckling under the strain of a case of some new icon wine, when the whole planet may implode because of the implications of shipping heavy glass around the globe?

My principal gripe is with really heavy bottles. Whatever is the point of them other than to satisfy an ego or a marketing concept?

At least now the flange bottle has all but disappeared. Remember those? Mondavi was a big exponent at one time – a time when everyone followed Mondavi. Those bottle tops that had a little shelf at the top. Why was that again? I really can’t remember. Chez moi they broke many a corkscrew whose legs desperately tried to straddle the extra-wide diameter of the extended bottle top. I mention this aberrant bottle shape merely to illustrate how relatively quickly fashions come and go in wine packaging. If wine producers were to collectively decide to be more sensible about their bottle choices, our world of wine could make a real impact on the amount of natural resources used up by manufacturing and transporting glass around the globe.

Last night I was at an Australian wine tasting, working my way along a row of red blends in reasonably standard bottles until I got to Wirra Wirra’s 2002 Cabernet, Dead Ringer, the name chosen to replace ‘Angelus’ which already had one careful owner in St-Émilion. Nice wine, but I could hardly lift it. I asked an Australian marketeer tasting alongside me how much that heavy bottle would have cost. He lifted it up and felt knowingly inside the deep punt in its base. 'About 12 Australian dollars a case', he said, 'they’ll have imported these from France'. [That’s 40p or nearly 80 US cents a bottle.]

How absurd – heavy glass bottles being transported from France to Australia and then back to Europe! At least seriously exhibitionist bottles are relatively rare in Australia. In Italy and, especially, California they are almost commonplace. I have asked all manner of wine producers around the world why such bottles are used and no one has come up with any more convincing an answer than one word: marketing.

Producers think that we will automatically assume that a wine is superior if it comes in a heavy bottle, preferably one with shoulders that slope out a bit like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, no matter that they are much more awkward to handle on a bottling line than a perfect cylinder with parallel sides.

But if anyone thinks that a wine must be better because it comes packaged in a bottle that weighs as much as a telephone directory, then they are stupid. I’m sorry but it’s true. Here in the Britain we see all manner of ambitiously marketed wines, Languedoc reds retailing at well under £6 a bottle for example, being bottled in glass so thick and heavy that it’s actually quite an effort to lift the bottle to top up a glass. It is quite clear, simply by looking at the price tag, that there is no direct correlation between bottle weight and wine quality.

Another bugbear of mine, especially since I am such a fan of fine Riesling, is the recent tendency of Germany’s top producers to use bottles that are so much taller than they were only a few years ago. I asked the admirable Klaus-Peter Keller, one of the Rheinhessen’s swelling band of young turks, why he and his like had chosen to adopt these heavier, more expensive Rhenana Charta bottles, copies of those used in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. His argument is that it helps them to distinguish their wines from the dross (he didn’t put it like that, needless to say), and of course to charge a higher price.

But surely even before people have tasted his wine, they can see from the price that it is very different from A N Other Niersteiner Gutes Domtal, and once they have tasted it there is absolutely no doubt about its being a completely different style and product.

In any case, the look of a bottle is critical only when wine buyers are making choices from a shelf when they can actually compare the look of different bottles. I cannot imagine that a very significant proportion of wines as sought after as Keller’s are sold off a shelf. In fact I find it difficult to imagine that many retail shelves are deep enough to accommodate his 36 cm/14 inch high bottles.

This tall bottle syndrome is relatively recent anyway so it is only a matter of time before the mass-market bottlers start to use similar packaging for lesser wines, as has happened with heavy bottles for red wines, thereby weakening the original argument for using them, that of distinguishing them from the pack.

A really heavy bottle can easily cost four times as much as a basic wine bottle (of which Bulgaria is a major producer in Europe, incidentally). Using a top-quality cork and capsule too can add almost a dollar or 50p to the cost of a bottle once transport is factored in.

It is no surprise then that more and more everyday wine is being shipped to the price-sensitive markets of northern Europe in bulk. UK wine bottlers seemed an endangered species 15 years ago as mandatory bottling at source – as for Rioja, Alsace and port, for example – seemed to be on the increase. But today British and German bottlers are reporting booming business. As the big retailers demand a bigger and bigger share of the margins, every penny is crucial in maintaining those precious x.99 price points, especially here in the UK where the excise duty seems to nudge upwards by a few pennies every year.

Every week one British bottler for example takes delivery of seven or eight containers of bulk wine from one giant California producer (with lots of bottling lines of their own) shipped from Oakland to a port on the Thames. The shipping costs alone are cheaper by 5p/9c[US] a bottle – vital in the war between the supplier and the supermarket.

I used to be very sceptical about the quality of wine shipped in bulk but I am assured that many of the old issues have been addressed. Recyclable flexitanks, plastic fillers inside standard containers, are the norm and they are much better nowadays at keeping out oxygen and TCA (a problem when the dry containers had wooden floors). I think we may never see the likes of Château Latour shipped in a flexitank but in a world that has to become ever more conscious of its natural resources, it does seem quite wasteful to be shipping the most basic sort of wine around the globe in glass that, in countries such as Britain without much of a domestic wine industry of its own, will then just be thrown away.

One argument for using heavy bottles is that they tend to be made of usefully darker glass than regular bottles. Yes, light can damage wine, so glass as dark as possible is a good idea for wines destined for long ageing. But the glass doesn’t have to be half an inch thick.

It would be great if wine consumers would demonstrate to wine producers that they don’t need and admire heavy bottles and if producers could think beyond marketing about the many global issues involved in their choice of packaging.