Why don't Italian wines have a standard, traditional bottle shape?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Why do some Piedmont producers bottle their wines in Burgundy-shaped bottles, while some use Bordeaux-shaped bottles? Why don’t Piedmont vintners adhere to a traditional bottle shape?

—George, Somerset, N.J.

Dear George,

Let me first take a moment to marvel at the development of the modern wine bottle. Wine used to be stored in clay amphorae and oak barrels; it wasn’t until the 17th century that cork-topped glass wine bottles were introduced, many of them hand-blown.

Over the next hundred years or so, the bottles became far more structurally sound and all-around reliable, and transporting them had become considerably easier as well; by the early 1800s they were in mass prodution.

At this point, a few basic wine bottle shapes started to develop: Bordeaux-style bottles, with straight sides and tall shoulders; stouter Burgundy bottles, with more gently sloping shoulders; and taller, narrower, tapered Alsace and Mosel bottles. Of course there are myriad variations on these shapes today. For winery owners, the shape of the bottle has become part of the branding, and it can be an indicator of where the wine is from, or simply a suggestion of the style of the wine.

When it comes to Italy, I relayed your question to Wine Spectator senior editor Bruce Sanderson, our lead taster for the wines of Piedmont, and he in turn checked in with vintner Pietro Ratti who offered some valuable insight.

“Since the 1800s, [Piedmont] has had a strong French influence with Napoleonic occupation,” explains Ratti. “The reason at that time was that Bordeaux and Burgundy bottles were made in a more consistent quality and shape compared to the local ones. During the 1960s, producers separated themselves into the two. Probably at that time, the Bordeaux one represented a more modern style. For example, my father in 1965 preferred the Bordeaux versus the Burgundy. The Burgundy was considered a more traditional one, especially with the winery seal on the glass. Some producers are using that one still today.”

But there’s a twist in Piedmont. A third bottle shape, called “Albeisa” and meaning “of Alba,” was created in the late 1700s, and it looks kind of like if a Bordeaux bottle and a Burgundy bottle had a child. That idea for a local bottle shape unique from those used in France didn’t take off at the time, because the Burgundy and Bordeaux bottles were much more reliable. But in 1973, Pietro Ratti’s father, Renato, revived the idea, creating the modern Albeisa bottle. Often brown, and with thick glass, the modern Albeisa has tall, gently sloping shoulders and the word “Albeisa” is embossed on the bottle. The Association of Producers of Albeisa Wines was formed, and only its member wineries (of which there are now about 300) are permitted to use the Albeisa bottle shape.

“Today the Albeisa is considered the most used [bottle shape in Piedmont]," Ratti says, "but some producers still use Bordeaux and Burgundy. This is Italy!”

—Dr. Vinny

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