Evolution does not move in a straight line – at least not in the world of business. Sometimes it seems to loop back on itself quite surprisingly. Until the 1950s it was usual for French wine, including top Bordeaux and Burgundy, to be bottled by negociants in the region or, when exported, shipped in barrel for bottling by merchants in markets like Britain, Belgium and the Netherlands. As a child, in the 1960s, I remember my mother having a first-floor office near Sherlock Holmes’ fictional Baker Street address in London. Downstairs, heftily-built men in blue aprons working for a merchant called Dolamore’s would unload barrels from trucks and occasionally horse-driven carts. I knew nothing about wine at the time but became painfully aware of the acrid smell of sulphor dioxide as they bottled it.
Wherever it was bottled, levels of care and honesty varied widely, as buyers of the finished product inevitably discovered: Châteaux Lafite and Yquem began bottling some of their wines in the years following the 1855 classification. And after Philippe de Rothschild bottled the entire 1924 vintage of Mouton Rothschild, other wineries eventually followed his lead. Until then, it was often possible to compare different bottlings of the same wine.
Mis en Bouteille au Château...
Even when Mis en Bouteille au Château became a more commonplace plus-factor for wine buyers, there were still variations as some estates bottled from individual barrels and over a prolonged period of time. Lucky buyers got the contents of clean, well-topped casks in the spring, while others got the older ones that had been allowed to oxidise over the August holidays. In Italy, this phenomenon of bottling-on-demand was even more apparent as wines were drawn in stages from large botti that, when full, could contain 10-20,000 litres of Chianti or Barolo that became progressively more vinegary as the level dropped. This kind of laxity may have explained why the Berry Bros & Rudd London bottling of 1966 Château Palmer I tasted in the early 1990s was a better example of that wine than a chateau-bottled example I sampled a few weeks later.
Today, of course, bottling from the barrel - often with the help of a candle - is long forgotten. Wines are assembled in large stainless-steel tanks for single runs and, unless there is an issue with the filter, closure, transport or storage, every bottle of the same vintage should taste the same.
Bulk-shipping Cru Classé Bordeaux?
But some of the old ways are coming back. First, and most obviously, thanks to the growing realisation of the environmental benefits and cost savings it has to offer, there’s bulk-shipping. Transporting a flexitank from Bordeaux to Bristol on a sailing ship and bottling it at a carbon-neutral plant like Greencroft, for example, would tick a lot of boxes for a company wanting to hit its net-zero targets. Similarly, UK supermarkets love the freedom bulk shipment and storage gives them to place orders for their private label wines and fast-moving brands without having to wait for container ships to cross the ocean and be unloaded.
Producers of more premium and super-premium wine still prefer to bottle it themselves, but as the need to fight climate change grows more urgent, who knows? Is it impossible to imagine a group of Bordeaux chateaux setting up their own bottling plant in the US or Asia? Is that really any more strange a notion than a quintessentially Italian luxury brand like Armani manufacturing its clothes in China?
But the principle of bottling a vintage in one go is also less universally adopted now than many might suppose. Most modern wine drinkers famously want to drink their Pinot Grigio or Merlot within hours of buying it and they expect it to have precisely the same flavour as the last bottle they opened. The best way to give them this experience is to bottle fresh batches of well-kept wine three or four times during the year. At a time when the price of glass has risen astronomically, this also offers the cashflow benefit of not having to buy large batches of bottles and then tying up too much cash in warehouses stacked high with bottled wine.
I'm guessing these swings of the pendulum are just the beginning. In the 19th century, visitors to Parisian bars and bistros rarely saw a bottle of wine. What they ordered was a pichet – a jug – that would be drawn directly from the barrel in precisely the same way that a German bartender would get his beer. Most wine bars of the 2020s have not yet been persuaded by the convenience – and environmental benefits - of serving wine on draught but, in the US, businesses like the Gotham Project and wineries like Tablas Creek have embraced the concept. When one considers the convenience of being able to pour up to 200 glasses of consistently reliable wine from a single keg, without having to pull a cork, remove a screwcap, find space to store 40 bottles and the time and effort to dispose of the empties, what's not to like?
As I say, we seem to be on a loop.