For millennia wine was stored and transported in vases, jars and wineskins. From biblical, historical and archaeological sources, we know that in ancient times large earthenware jars, even partially buried like the Georgian qvevris, were used to ferment and store wine. When a more convenient storage was needed for the expanding wine trade, it came in the form of an iconic clay container, the amphora.
Amphorae were the ancient world’s standardized way to transport food and beverages. Probably developed first by the Egyptians, these pine and bees wax-lined ceramic vessels were gradually adopted by nearly all wine-producing civilizations throughout the Mediterranean basin. They reached their peak in usage in ancient Greece and Rome being easy to produce and relatively easy to transport.
Phoenicians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans all stored and traded goods in terracotta amphorae, the latter serving as many of the same functions as do contemporary consumer packages: in the ancient world a wide range of liquid and dry commodities such as wine, olive oil, garum (the popular Roman fish sauce similar to bagoong) milk, grain, olives, fruits and fish were all transported in amphorae.
Properly sealing amphorae, though, was a challenge and the solutions adopted varied over time. Wine amphorae were usually sealed with wood or leather plugs, with a layer of olive oil if the container didn’t have to be moved soon. Since amphorae were too large or bulky to be brought to the table, wine was decanted into smaller pottery vessels specifically for serving.
For safe transportation, plugs of stuffing materials such as straw, wad of leaves or vineleaves were placed inside the neck of the amphorae to a depth of 5 to 10 cm. Pottery stoppers consisted of small saucers or shards laid at the top of the amphora neck, while clay stoppers were thick handmade discs of clay placed in the neck of the amphora. Stoppers of other materials, such as bark cork, linen, grass, chopped chaff mixed with earth or clay also sparsely occurred.
In order to make amphorae air and watertight, the Romans used heated resin, clay or plaster as stoppers. The clay was placed on the mouth of the amphora, and modelled into shape creating an uneven and often rough surface. A stamp was impressed when the sealing had almost dried. Plaster compared favorably to clay, since it was stronger and less likely to shrink or crack while drying. As a secure sealant, it was especially favoured for long distance transport. Wooden and bark corks were not well-fitted as they were simply meant to keep bugs and dust out.
While the ancient Greeks, as the Egyptians and Etruscans, produced elaborately decorated amphorae, to the pragmatic Romans these containers were strictly about business, that is, moving and selling olive oil and wine across the Empire as efficiently as possible. Just for the City of Rome, a year’s supply of 20,000,000 liters of oil translated into about 285,714 amphorae while the annual consumption of 100,000,000 litres of wine would require around 4,000,000 amphorae!
Eventually, wooden barrels gradually took the place of terracotta jars and amphorae. The Celts are recognised as the inventors of the wooden barrel, but it was sometime around 1st Century BC through the Gauls that the Romans started adopting barrels for wine storage and transportation .
However, amphorae remained the container of choice in Rome for another couple of centuries as confirmed by Trajan’s Column, and thus the trading of wine continued simultaneously with both containers. The transition to storing and transporting wine only in wooden barrels was virtually complete by the 3rd Century AC, ending amphorae’s 5,500 year period of dominance.
What about the glass bottle? According to Roman historian Pliny the Elder (23-79 AC) Phoenician merchants deserved the credit for the discovery of glass. However, archaeological evidence prove that the first objects composed entirely of glass, rather than simple translucent beads or vitreous ceramics, have been found dating from 2100 BC in Mesopotamia and Egypt, all made with the molding technique. In fact, Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt remained for long time centres for glass manufacturing until their technology was acquired, perfected and further developed by the Romans.
In fact glass vessels were already available in Roman times, but they were very fragile, expensive and mostly used, in small sizes, to contain perfumes and medicines or, in mid sizes, as tools to decant wine from amphorae and barrels to cups.
No matter what, glass became soon one of the most important item traded within the borders of the Roman Empire and beyond. The Romans were the first people who began using glass for architectural purposes, for example, as a covering for windows and, backed with a metal foil, as mirrors. Glass mosaics, paneling and windows were probably as ubiquitous and indispensable in the Roman world as the glass bottles.
Speaking of which, in the German City of Speyer, at the Pfalz Historical Museum, is displayed the oldest bottle of wine ever found intact, a well made Roman glass bottle that stayed airtight over the millennia. Known as Römerwein, or the Speyer wine bottle, it could be 1,650 years old dating back to the 4th Century AC, sometime between 325 and 359. The 1.5 litre glass vessel was discovered during the excavation of a Roman nobleman’s tomb in the Rhineland-Palatine region of Germany: a layer of olive oil and a seal of wax prevented evaporation of the contents.
Through the use of amphorae, wooden barrels and glass bottles Romans innovated and advanced the wine industry by changing the way wine was produced, stored, transported and sold, while ultimately changing also the way it tasted.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, glassmaking manufacture declined and almost disappeared until it re-emerged in Venice by the end of the 13th Century. To protect their craft Venetians artisans, who dominated the glass industry, transferred in the year 1291 AC all glass blowing equipment and factories to the island of Murano. Despite their efforts to keep the technology secret, their know-how somehow spread in northern Europe where, in the 14th Century, the art of making stained glass on churches and cathedrals windows reached its height in the Canterbury, Chartres and Milano Cathedrals.
In Germany and other northern European countries glass-making became really important by the early 16th Century. Glass had been around since Roman times but until the 17th Century - when a timber shortage led to the creation of coal-fuelled furnaces - glass vessels were too fragile for storing or transporting wines being more often used only for serving. During transportation, the tear-drop shaped glass bottles produced were wrapped in straw both to protect them from breakage and to allow the bottles to stand upright on a table, the very origins of the famous straw-wrapped Chianti wine bottles.
As hotter coal furnaces allowed for creation of thicker and darker glass, this ability brought forth the use of stronger glass bottles for wine transport and preservation. At that time, bottles were made of many different shapes and sizes rarely labeled with anything but a maker’s stamp. The characteristic olive green hue to the glass varied from light to dark caused by the level of impurities in the ingredients used for moulding. The shapes of these bottles were short and squat with protruding necks making impossible to lie them on the sides and forcing them to be stored upright instead.
The progress of glass-blowing technology made airtight wine storage possible through the manufacturing of bottles with small necks. Glass bottles became the main vessels of choice for wine because they could be easily cleaned and because they could be used to store, sell and pour the wine at the same time. The new improved glass bottles prompted the quest for new closures and seals: bark cork, a natural, renewable resource, was re-discovered as an ideal stopper. It was a single-pieced, waterproof and elastic piece able to shield wine from external agents and protect its flavour while allowing a small amount of oxygen to interact with wine, an essential quality to wine ageing process.
Corkscrew, borne out of necessity, did appear only at the end of the 17th Century, and its design would be continuously modified during the centuries to follow, for as long as wine was sold in glass bottles sealed with cork stoppers, consumers had to struggle to remove those corks with easy, user friendly openers.
The earliest reference to a corkscrew was recorded in writing in the year 1680 AC, a basic instrument called “steel worm” because it was a variation of the “gun worm”, a musket barrel cleaning tool manufactured by gun-smiths.
So which came first, bottle or stopper?