Ten Green Bottles


The origins of Ten Green Bottles like so many other folksongs have faded into history. It was always thought to be an English song and possibly from Yorkshire, although one suggestion is that “green bottles” is nineteenth century underworld slang referring to officers of London’s Metropolitan Police. Unfortunately, that theory rather lost its credibility in 1998 when a French researcher discovered a fourteenth century English manuscript containing virtually the same words.

But why green? The colour of the bottle is largely the choice of the winemaker, traditions, practical issues and these days perhaps, customer expectations. As everyone knows, red wine comes in green bottles. It was once thought that red wine was particularly sensitive to light and the green colour also helped to conceal the sediment that sometimes appeared. Perhaps it was simply cheaper to use green glass. I’ve noticed that in countries which produce both red and white wines (which are most of them) the whites are nearly always bottled in transparent glass. Perhaps this is simply because in a dark cellar it would easier to distinguish the whites from the reds. In Germany, which produces hardly any red wines, transparent bottles are rarely used. The white wines of the Mosel Valley come in light green bottles whereas the whites from the Rheine Valley are always in brown bottles, which at least make them instantly identifiable.

Puente Alto, Chile (Photo: Fsanchezs).Puente Alto, Chile (Photo: Fsanchezs).

Bottle technology developed significantly during the eighteenth century and it became possible to produce containers of a reasonably consistent size and shape. The colour of the glass was usually determined by the minerals available and during this time, the wine bottle changed from a squat-looking dumpy thing to something closer to the Bordeaux-style bottle we know today.

But have you ever noticed how many different bottle shapes there are? Putting aside various novelty shapes, there are about a dozen standard designs for table wines all of which come from the Old World. The tall Bordeaux style bottle is the most common, with its high shoulders and short neck. It was evidently designed for storage, because high-quality wines are aged on their sides to keep the cork moist. The high shoulders prevent sediment from reaching the cork and the straight sides also allow the bottles to be stacked on top of each other. Although most wine is made for early drinking, the Bordeaux-style bottle remains a favourite design. Old habits, as they say, die hard.

In Alsace, the wine bottles are tall and elegant with long necks. In Burgundy, the wine comes in bottles with gently sloping shoulders and a rather wide body. Further south in the Rhône Valley, wine is sold in broad heavy bottles usually with a coat of arms embossed below the neck. In Germany, Mosel and Rheine wines come in tall bottles similar to those of Alsace.

And that’s another thing. What about that curious indentation in the base of the bottle? It’s known as a punt but nobody is really sure why it’s there. It may have been intended to trap the sediment in red wines. A more plausible explanation is that’s a left-over from the days when wine bottles were hand blown using a thing called a pontil which left a scar on the base of the bottle. By indenting the base, the scar would not scratch the table and more importantly, made the bottle much more stable.

Maipo Vitral Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay 2013 (white), Chile (Bt. 649 @ Tesco-Lotus)

You may not know that the Spanish word vitral means “a stained glass window” and neither did I until I ferreted through the browning pages of my old Spanish dictionary. This is evidently a reference to the town’s famous sixteenth century church and its stained glass windows.

This wine is a pale straw colour with faint hints of green. There’s a fresh and delicate aroma but you’ll need to let the wine breathe in the glass for a few minutes especially if the bottle has just been taken out of the fridge. The Chardonnay, with its honeyed aromas of pineapple, peaches and citrus aromas seems to come through first, despite the fact that the grape accounts for only 15% of the blend. Then, a bit later, the slightly mineral and grassy notes of the Sauvignon Blanc appear.

The Sauvignon character seems rather more noticeable on the taste because there’s a sprightly dash of acidity which you can’t miss, a very firm dry body and a long tangy finish. These two grape varieties make for a good blend because the soft quality of the Chardonnay helps to keep the lively Sauvignon Blanc under control. Because of its refreshing crispness, this would make an excellent apéritif but I’d guess it would work well with richly-flavoured fish dishes or something like chicken in a creamy sauce. It would work very well with that old 1970s favourite Pollo Sorpresa but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a decent one in these parts.

Maipo Vitral Cabernet-Merlot 2013 (red), Chile (Bt. 449 @ Tesco-Lotus)

This bright, ruby-red wine has the familiar aroma of black red plums and cherries with a faint hint of spice and chocolate. The Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 85% of the blend but I shall leave you to calculate the percentage of Merlot because at the end of the week, I am not up to feats of arithmetic. The blend has been the basis of Bordeaux reds for generations, because the Merlot brings a touch of softness and roundness to the wine. It also adds that characteristic brambly, woodland kind of smell which is so easy to recognise yet so difficult to describe.

The wine has a lovely smooth and silky texture and a clean, well-rounded and focused taste with the fruit well-balanced against the soft ripe tannins. The taste “blooms” in your mouth, which is invariably a sign of a well-crafted wine. There’s a very satisfying long and dry fruity finish with a waft of pleasing tannins at the end. If this all sounds a bit daunting, the wine is actually an easy drinker with plenty to hold the attention. It would make a good partner for most red meat dishes. And just in case you’re wondering, it comes in a green bottle.