Wine Ink: Bring the big bottle
April 18, 2018
At a recent gathering of a group of dear friends, there was an opportunity to drink a toast to a dearly departed member of the group. His favorite wine was a Rombauer Carneros Chardonnay. We were able to obtain a 3-liter bottle — a double magnum which holds four bottles of the wine — for the group and celebrate the life of the one who left. It was an epic event.
The experience got me to thinking once again about how majestic it is to drink wines out of bottles that seem to be bigger than life. Wines poured from Salmanzar, Balthazar, Nebuchanezzar bottles just taste … regal.
If you have more than a passing understanding of Jeroboam and Methuselah, I would guess that you are either a Biblical scholar or a master of wine. If you are both, then consider yourself one of the more unique and learned members of a society that rarely marries the study of religion with the pleasures of the grape.
Ah, but there is a connection between Biblical figures and the wider world of wine that goes back more than three centuries.
You've likely entered a restaurant and spied a gargantuous (made-up word alert) bottle of wine sitting on display on a counter, perhaps signed by the winemaker. It might have been a "Jeroboam." If the bottle was truly, truly humongous it may have been a "Methuselah." And if it was so big that you wondered how they even got it up on that counter, well then, you may have actually seen a "Balthazar." No doubt when you saw the bottle the first thing you likely wondered was "Is it full?"
In the wine trade, these behemoths are called "large format" bottles. They are various sizes larger than the regular 750 ml bottles that you would find on your wine shop's shelves or on a restaurant wine list. Large formats begin with "Magnums," which hold 1,500 ml, the equivalent of two bottles of wine.
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From there it gets a little trickier.
You see, different wines from different regions use different large format bottles so that they can be, well, different. A "Double Magnum" of Bordeaux, for example, holds four bottles. A four-bottle bottle of either Champagne or Burgundy would be called a "Jeroboam," but a Bordeaux "Jeroboam" would hold six standard bottles. Got it? Viva la differance!
From there, the largeness of the large format bottles just gets bigger and bigger. We'll stick with the Burgundian sizes to make it simple, but next up is the "Methuselah," holding eight standard bottles; the "Balthazar," holding 16 bottles; the Nebuchadnezzar, with 20 bottles; and, finally, for those with big bottle-sized budgets only, the "Melchior," which holds 24 standard bottles, or as I like to call it, two cases. Party on.
The "Melchior" is extremely rare and is generally bottled and sold for charitable events. At more than 100 pounds apiece, they are indeed big dogs.
The reason the large formats have Biblical names is, is, is … well, no one really knows as far as I can tell. It is assumed that when bottles came into standard use for wine in the early 1700s post-jug generation, big bottles were bought by rich folks who displayed their richness by buying big things. Big bottles of wine were part and parcel of the whole "impress your friends" zeitgeist.
Monks, who bottled wines in Bordeaux, are said to have introduced a "Jeroboam," which they named after the 14th king of Israel who, according to the ChristianAnswers.net dictionary, had a "reign of 41 years that was the most prosperous that Israel had ever known as yet." Big bottles for wealthy people named after a prosperous man. Sounds good. I assume the standard was established and from thereafter, large formats and Biblical figures were coupled in glass.
Big bottles are in fact impressive. And nothing is more fun than setting a large format bottle on the table for dinner, one that doesn't run dry until your numerous family and friends start thinking dessert. And they, that would be the experts, say that a large format bottle of wine imparts different flavor characteristics from the same wine in a smaller bottle. Youth is served, they say, because the greater volume of wine will age more slowly.
And they are great for a group gathering. I know that from experience.
Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be-designated appellation of Old Snowmass. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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