Clay to Cork

Have you ever wondered about the evolution of the wine bottle and corks? Or how we have gone from storing wine in underground caves and cellars to storing wine in locker storage? We didn’t wake up one day with all the technology, experience and know how to say “This is it!”. We (humanity) have earned it, worked for it, and now open our bottles while we relish in our temperature-humidity controlled cellars.  What did the wine lovers of the past do to keep their wine drinkable? Honestly, the founding principles have remained the same through the centuries. Kudos to our ancestors for setting us up for success! These principles have proven timeless; keep the air out of the wine, be able to transport it easily, store it and ensure that whatever vessel we choose to store the wine in does not ruin it.

Imagine, it’s somewhere between 8000 B.C and 4100 B.C. and wine making has just began. What do you suppose they were using to make and store wine? Kvevri (also spelled Qvevri) originated in Georgia and was the original pottery used for both winemaking and storage. In early 6,000 BC these massive pots where lined with beeswax and used for every part of the winemaking process; grape crushing, fermentation and even long- term storage. It was the all-in-one wine making vessel – talk about all inclusive! They were capped and buried underground in order to create and regulate a stable temperature. Historians do not believe they were used for transportation based on their sheer size.

Then came Amphora, which were these round ceramic vessels with two handles and long slim neck. They not only were a standardized way to transport wine but were also used for olive oil and other deeply valued liquids. This beeswax coated ceramic container was invented by the Egyptians. They were progressively adopted by the majority of all wine producing/drinking civilizations along the Mediterranean and Mesopotamian regions, reaching their peak in both standardized size and usage in ancient Rome and Greece.

As the Roman Empire expanded, they conquered a number of cultures. Post-defeat they would adopt the technologies that those cultures possessed. When Rome encountered the Gauls they discovered the transport of beer in wooden barrels, bound with metal hoops. The Celts are recognized as the inventors of the wooden barrel, but it was through the Gauls that the Romans adopted them. While the Romans were aware that earlier civilizations used palm wood barrels to transport wine, it wasn’t until they conquered the Gauls that amphorae and dolia (massive containers cemented to ship’s floor) were the transport medium of choice.

Since the Roman army was the leader of new technology, merchants quickly followed suit adopting wooden barrels, replacing the amphorae. Wooden barrels were stronger than clay, weighed significantly less and can be turned on their side and rolled. There were no shortage of trees across Europe, so ease and access made the barrel the best option. The ease and access of storing and transporting wine in wooden barrels ended clay’s 5000 year period of dominance.

The vast majority of wine was stored and transported in barrels well into the twentieth century, but the seventeenth century saw the introduction of the glass bottle and the cork stopper. Advances in glass making allowed for the production of thicker, stronger glass and eventually a point was reached where it was safe to store and transport wine in a glass bottle. Early wine bottles had fat bottoms and short necks. In 1821, a company called Rickets of Bristol received a patent for a machine that manufactured identically sized bottles, in a shape we would recognize today.

Glass wine bottles, like any other vessel, require stoppers. Cork, which the ancient Romans had experimented with, proved to be the answer, although other materials were experimented with, such as oil-soaked rags. (Appetizing right?) Cork stoppers aren’t perfect, but they proved capable of keeping enough oxygen out to vastly extend the practical life of most wines. The small amount of oxygen that permeates through a cork allows wines which benefit from aging to improve over time.

In a world where we are constantly progressing and determined to produce exceptional wines, we are reminded that no matter how great the wine, storage and ease of shipment are key contributors to that greatness. We still have not perfected the art of either! Just imagine what the next few generations of wine lovers will oh-and-ah over when they look at our tactics. However, in the meantime, uncork a bottle and toast to those that led us here, and to those that will keep moving us forward.