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Old wines in new bottles

Once upon a time, in a century not so far away, one could look at a wine bottle and know by its shape the grape inside: Merlot, chardonnay and Riesling came in the same bottles for so long.

Not anymore. In a burst of marketing and competition, new design and dusty history, wine bottles are rapidly changing size, color and now shape. Cabernet sauvignon bottles are taller and skinnier; pinot noir and chardonnay shorter and fatter. And many expensive cabs can now be bought in 375 milliliter half-bottles.

In a market crowded with more brands, grapes and exports, some wineries seek lines distinctly shapely and sophisticated, others as wild and silly as can be.

"As a whole, packaging is continuing to innovate and evolve," says Chris Catterton, who led the search for new bottles for Bogle Vineyards, which was looking for distinction beyond its label. "Glass is a wonderful way to communicate quality."

Mora Cronin of Beringer-Blass says winery research tells her that, "After price point and varietal, when customers go into the store, packaging is the third thing they look for."

The changes probably started with the sensuous cobalt bottle of Ty Nant water that thrilled designers in 1989.

After that came the deluge of blue products, including wine, trying to grab attention with a pharmaceutical hue. Except for the Germans, who have always fancied blue glass, odd colored bottles remained a minor trend that came and went. Dark antique greens and light ambers are more in fashion now.

Instead of color, new wineries have turned their attention to funny names, silly labels and animal prints. Old Masters and modern art greats who graced bottles of Lafite were rolling in the wine cellar laughing at the likes of Fat Bastard and Cardinal Zin.

Innovators who replaced natural cork with plastic stoppers or screw caps did tweak the top of the neck, but they left the bottle shapes alone.

Wineries around the world used styles that had worked for centuries for practical and traditional reasons and had settled into four common profiles:

+ Bordeaux: Tall with sharp, square shoulders to catch sediment. Used for cabernet sauvignon, merlot and other Bordeaux reds, as well as sauvignon blanc and semillon, the local white grapes.

+ Burgundy: Shorter, fatter bottles with tapered necks. Used for pinot noir, which did not throw sediment, and the local white wine, chardonnay. Often used by neighbors in Beaujolais and the Rhone (who often embossed a cartouche with a regional seal such as the crossed keys of Chateauneuf du Pape).

+ German: Tall bottles with long graceful necks, used for Riesling and other white wines, in brown glass along the Rhine and green along the Mosel.

+ Champagne: Short, heavy bottles with thick walls to withstand the pressure inside.

Around the world, wineries in Spain, Italy, the Americas and Australia that made similar wines followed suit in glass.

That was then, but now there is a different market in a shape-shifting millennium with many more brands, wines, grapes _ and countries that are less bound by tradition. Some of the new looks:

+ Italian pinot grigio and inexpensive imports from South Africa and other New World exports are taking the most chances, stretching glass into odd shapes.

+ Some verdicchio producers now use a contemporary stylized version of the old fish bottle shape. A few low-priced Chiantis have a bulge like an old straw basket.

+ High-end U.S. cabernets and merlots are stretching into taller, more slender, more elegant shapes, sometimes tapered from the bottom. Other have thicker walls and deeper punts in the bottom.

+ A few pinot noir and chardonnay bottles are adopting older, antique styles that are shorter and stockier, sometimes with a flanged bottom.

+ Syrah and other wines made from red Rhone grapes aren't sure where they fit. Some top-dollar Australian shiraz follows the sleek new cabernet style. A few Californians, such as Ojai and Ferrari-Carano's Tre Montes, prefer fat, squat bottles, sometimes as wide as a ship captain's decanter of port.

Ultimately bottle choice is not frivolous or deceptive, says Catterton. Nor inexpensive: Wineries can spend 25 cents to $2 per bottle on glass. For Bogle Vineyards, Catterton wanted bottles that would match the winery's sales pitch of high quality in under $10 wines. They chose five, most of them with broad, curved shoulders in which the round label fit like a heart.

The shapely bottles are also a part of a packaging strategy that's more primal and artisanal than the name and labels.

"It's a very Old World craft. In Europe sometimes you'll just find an old mold lying in someone's shop," Catterton says.

One reason for the new bottles, he says, is that old European bottle molds have been brought to glassworkers in Mexico and Canada who are willing to make small runs.

For the company's signature petite sirah, Bogle found a historic shape, graceful and slightly bulbous. "I call it a Thomas Jefferson. I just love that bottle."

That heft and sense of tradition underscore Catterton's focus.

"We want people to have an $8 to $10 bottle of wine and say that tastes like something that cost $15 to $20," he says.

The nifty glass has drawn plenty of attention to Bogle, but Catterton knows "what people come back to is in the bottle."

Chris Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or