Vintage Voice


The alt.food.wine Punt FAQ


I. What is alt.food.wine?

Alt.food.wine is a Usenet newsgroup devoted to the discussion of wine. You can find a mirror of this FAQ on the alt.food.wine FAQ site.

II. What is the purpose of this FAQ?

This FAQ grew out of my compilation of members' answers to one of the most frequently asked questions in the newsgroup, and it just represents my take on the various responses.

Since this FAQ is really a summary of the knowledge and ideas of the members of alt.food.wine, along with a few facts from published references, it isn't intended to be a definitive treatise on the issue. Hopefully, the FAQ will serve as a starting point for additional discussion. Additions and corrections are always welcome -- feel free to email me if you have any. If you would like to read the original posts, you may be able to find most of them on a Usenet archive. Unfortunately, since the Deja.com archive was acquired by Google, older posts have become unavailable, although they have promised to make them available again at some unspecified future date.

III. What is the indentation in the bottom of a bottle of quality wine called?

The discussion about this question on alt.food.wine has always revolved around the English name, and as this FAQ is also in English, I am only going to address the issue of the name in English. If anyone would like to contribute information about the name in other languages, feel free to email me or to write your own FAQ!

As you might have guessed by the FAQ title, one name for the indentation is: "punt". Amusingly, when I first started the compilation which became this FAQ, I wrote: "There have been quite a few responses regarding these indentations, and the only real consensus is that they are called 'punts'." However, it was later pointed out to me by Bob Ross (who is compiling a lengthy treatise on this subject) in a post on the Wine Lovers' Discussion Group, and also by some people on alt.food.wine, that there is actually another name for the indentation: a "kick-up". Apparently, nothing about this issue is simple.

Consulting the Oxford English Dictionary (OED2 online version) further complicates the issue. The use of "punt" probably predates the use of "kick-up" for the indentation in the bottom of a bottle; the oldest quotation listed for "punt" comes from 1863, while the oldest for "kick-up" doesn't come until 1901. However, the OED also mentions "kick" as another synonym which dates from at least 1861. Also, "ponty" and "punty" are mentioned as meaning "a round hollow on a glass object", dating from at least 1884. Since some version of the word "punt" has been used in glass making for many centuries (the word dates to at least the 7th Century), it seems likely to predate the various forms of "kick".

Of course, "punt" and "kick" also have related meanings outside of the wine world, both referring to the act of using one's foot on an object (e.g. a punt as a certain type of kick in American football, and, as Martin Field of alt.food.wine points out, Australian Rules football). Glassmaking may be the original connection between these two words, as "punt" seems to have come from the name of a tool, and "kick" seems to be a description of the appearance of the bottle (the bottom looks as if someone kicked it).

So what should you call the indentation? "Punt" seems to be the most widely used name among wine enthusiasts, and, according to Bob Ross, "kick-up" is the most widely used in the glass industry in general, so either one would probably be a good choice. For the purposes of this FAQ, "punt" will be the term of choice, for the historical reasons mentioned above and because it's the term I use (also, it requires 3 fewer characters to type).

IV. What is the purpose of the punt?

There have been many different explanations proposed on alt.food.wine, and many people are absolutely certain that their explanation is the only correct one. No consensus has been reached on what the true purpose is, or even if there actually is only one "true" explanation for the presence of punts in wine bottles. Here is a list of the proposed explanations, along with some analysis of each one:

1. It is a remnant of historical glass-blowing techniques, and serves no real purpose. Punts certainly were a result of historical glass-blowing techniques. The blowpipe was attached to the neck of the bottle, and then it was transferred to a tool called a "punty" (a.k.a. punt, ponty, pontil, pointel, ponto, pontil rod, ponte [7th C.]) which was put on the base of the bottle. An indentation was the natural result (thanks to Dan Razzell for an explanation of old glassblowing techniques). However, whether punts have just survived because of tradition or whether they survived because they have some useful function(s) is still open for debate, as the rest of the list suggests.

2. It once had a purpose, which was that it made the bottle more stable when standing up. Hugh Johnson mentions this theory in his book, Vintage, the Story of Wine. Primitive glassblowing did not approach today's standards of precision. Making a concave surface which will stand on end is much easier than making a flat one, since with just a small manufacturing error, a flat surface can become convex, causing the bottle to tend to tip over, while a concave surface would be just a little less concave and would remain stable. As a result, concerns about stability may have contributed to the development and retention of the punt. This explanation (and the first) are partly supported by the fact that not all of today's wine bottles have punts; punts are certainly not absolutely necessary in wine bottles now, though they may have been essential in the past.

3. It once had (and may still have) a purpose, which was to strengthen the bottle. This explanation supposedly accounts for the deep punts in many sparkling wines. There is at least a grain of truth to this, since early Champagne bottles were weak, and breakage due to pressure was a problem. However, on a previous occasion when this explanation came up, there was a long debate about whether the punt actually contributed significantly to the strength of the bottle. Some people claimed that the weak point in modern bottles is where the base joins the sides, and that a punt would have an insignificant effect on the stability of this region. I haven't done the calculations on how much a punt would strengthen the base of a bottle myself, but I am somewhat skeptical of the importance of any such effect. (Does anyone want to volunteer to do the calculations, or know of a reliable source where this topic is covered? The reasoning and calculations should address how significant the effect on bottle strength would be, including whether the punt strengthens the weakest point in a modern bottle's construction -- details I have not seen in any arguments to date.)

In any event, technology has probably rendered the strength question moot, since modern glass is much stronger than the glass used in early bottles. On alt.food.wine Michael Wilson noted a trend toward shallower punts and thinner glass, making the wine bottles lighter, thus saving shipping costs and increasing profit margins. Apparently, bottle strength is less of an issue than money nowadays. Also, keep in mind that the strength explanation mainly addresses the issue of punts in bottles of sparkling wine, as bottles of still wine can be much weaker.

4. It has a purpose for sparkling wines, aiding in the stacking of inverted bottles on top of each other. This explanation was suggested in The Oxford Companion to Wine (1st ed., p. 140), which states that this method of stacking is necessary (or at least very helpful) for traditional sparkling winemaking. I have no reason to believe that this use is untrue, but it may have originally been more of a serendipitous discovery than the result of a conscious design. Also, like #3, this reasoning doesn't explain punts in bottles of still wine.

5. Its purpose is to collect sediment to make the wine easier to decant. This certainly doesn't explain punts in sparkling wines. Nor is it helped by the fact that there are some red wines which do not have punts. It may be useful for this purpose, but I doubt that sediment collection was the original reason for the design (again, it seems more likely to me that a use was found for something which already existed). I also doubt that it makes a signficant difference in the amount of wine which can be decanted easily. If anyone has done a relevant experiment, I'd be interested in the results.

6. Its purpose is to aid in pouring the wine in an "elegant" fashion. In case you haven't seen anyone do this, the idea is that you can pour wine by placing one hand on the base, holding onto the punt with your thumb. I seriously doubt that this is the purpose, as there seem to be just as many people who think this is awkward and pretentious as those who think it is elegant and sophisticated. However, a punt is undoubtedly useful if you want to pour wine this way.

7. Its purpose is aesthetic and/or marketing-related:
a. To make the bottle look bigger (mentioned in The Oxford Companion to Wine (1st ed.) as a possible reason for punts in still wines). Now we're getting somewhere. While this may not have been the original purpose, I could see that current marketing and packaging gurus might appreciate the illusion of a bigger bottle.
b. Because people expect to see a punt in "quality" wine, since they have always been there (somewhat related to reason #1 above). Again, this explanation may certainly be true, at least in some cases. Popular perception is certainly considered to be very important in sales of consumer goods.

Conclusion:

So, after all those possible explanations, what is the bottom line? Possibly, many or all of the above explanations contribute to the existence of punts in various wines; different producers may have slightly different reasons, and a single producer may even use different reasoning for having punts in bottles of different wines. Over the years, each one of these explanations has been proposed by at least one person on alt.food.wine as being the "one true reason" behind punts. Who can say that wine producers don't hold opinions which are equally diverse as those of the wine-drinking public?

Personally, I favor the idea that the punt was, at least at first, an accident of early glass-blowing technique. Over time punts probably proved useful for a number of reasons (bottle stability when standing, stacking sparkling wine), while not being strictly necessary. For most wines today, I believe that the reason for the punt is largely aesthetic. People expect to see punts in "quality" wines due to tradition, and the illusion of a larger bottle is probably useful for marketing. However, since nothing about the issue is truly clear, you should feel free to form your own conclusions.

Last revised 3/17/01


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