Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Bigger the Better

"A bottle of wine begs to be shared; I have never met a miserly wine lover." ~ Clifton Fadiman

And might I add, some bottles beg more than others, like the ones pictured above.

I was visiting my favored wine merchant last weekend and spent a few minutes looking at the large format wines they had in stock. I was not looking at 1.5 liters of Little Penguin or the like but rather fantastic bottles from France, Italy, California, and Portugal in big bottles with commensurate price tags. I've always been fascinated by these large bottles and have been fortunate to be in the right place at the right time for the openings of a few Jeroboams and one Balthazar. These bottles as much as the wines themselves conveyed a great sense of celebration and importance and made for very memorable meals and occasions.

I was trying to provide a handy chart showing all the various sizes in a logical format, but was bested by Blogger's inability to play well with spreadsheets. So here, in a less than ideal format, please find Athenaeus' Guide to the intriguing, at least for me, world of the off-sized wine bottle. You'll probably notice that I use both spellings of Liter/Litre. This is done for a host of reasons, the most obvious of which is that the Litre spelling is typically European, where most of these bottle sizes originated.

The smallest wine bottles produced are called Mignonettes and come in various sizes, none larger than 0.025 liters or 3% of a bottle. These are used exclusively for samples and are not very common due to the disproportionately large cost of the container to the contents.

The smallest readily available wine bottles are Splits and contain 0.1875 liters or 1/4 of a standard bottle. These are almost exclusively used for sparkling wines including Champagne.

The Piccolo is a bit larger at 0.2 liters or just over a fourth of a bottle and gets its name from the Italian word for small. These bottles are also used for sparkling wines, and are often incorrectly referred to as Splits.

Chopine is the name given to 0.25 liter bottles which hold 1/3 of a bottle. This size is not very common.
The Half Bottle or Demi which holds, as the name implies, 1/2 of a bottle or 375 milliliters, has gained in popularity over the past few years as people have begun to pair wines with courses in restaurants and at home and in households (like mine) where we can't always agree on one wine for dinner. Wines produced in the Loire Valley have traditionally been the French wines most likely to be found in this size and are traditionally called Fillette.

The not so elegantly named 500 ml bottle is commonly used for dessert wines including Port, Tokai from Hungary, and Ice Wine.

The 750ml bottle is the world standard and has been since a world wide treaty signed in 1972 and begun with the 1973 vintages. It's a strange convergence of the English and Metric systems and represents approx. 1/5th of a gallon, or "a fifth" in common parlance for spirits, which had been the typical size bottle sold in the UK and the US up to that point. Many French wines up to this point were put in 750ml bottles but contained only 730ml of wine to allow for the cork. Champagne up to this point actually contained exactly 1/5th of a gallon per the US standard, showing its global popularity.

The 1 litre bottle is somewhat common in Europe for inexpensive table wines, but is seldom seen in the US.
Magnums are the most common of the large format bottles, and contain twice as much wine as the standard bottle (1.5L). These bottles are good for ageing wines as the ratio of air to wine is lower thus slowing the aging process. These are typically the largest bottles used by wineries for bottle ageing.

Bordeaux produces 2.25 litre bottles, the equivalent of three bottles, called Marie-Jeanne or Dame Jeane and are almost exclusively filled with red wine. US wineries are not permitted to bottle in this size. Bordeaux bottles are almost exclusively of the high "square shoulder" variety. It's thought that this shape was developed to allow the sediment to be trapped in the bottle during decanting. This bottle shape is common among Cabernet Sauvignon the world over as well as Sauternes and white Bordeaux varietals.

Three liter bottles are correctly called Jeroboams when the contents are from Burgundy, Champagne, or other parts of the world. Often New World wine makers will choose the less traditional, but easily understood term Double Magnums. These bottles are typically Burgundian in their shape with lower sloping shoulders. The name Jeroboam refers to Jeroboam II, a biblical king who reigned around the founding of Rome in 753BC.
In Bordeaux they also use Jeroboam to describe a bottle, but in their case it is 4.5 litres or the equivalent of 6 bottles. In my opinion the Jeroboam is the most confusing name due to the differing sizes by region.

The Imperial, Impériale is most typical of Bordeaux and contains 6 litres or 8 bottles.
Methuselah is the name given to 6 litre bottles in Burgundy. The name Methuselah comes from the grandfather of Noah and the oldest man mentioned in the Bible said to have lived to be 969 years old.

The Rehoboam is a 9 litre bottle, the equivalent of a case of wine, produced in Bordeaux for claret or in Champagne, though for Champagne this size is sometimes referred to as a double-Jeroboam. The name comes from the son of King Solomon and the King of Judah.

Salamanzar is the name used in Burgundy and Champagne for a bottle that holds 9 litres, like the Rehoboam. The name comes from an Assyrian monarch who ruled around 1250 BC. US wine producers are prohibited from bottling in 9 liter bottles regardless of what they would choose to call them.

Balthazar is the common name used in both Bordeaux and Burgundy for a 12 litre bottle the equivalent of 16 standard bottles. The name comes from one of the Three Wise Men, and reportedly means "King of Treasures" which seems appropriate for a bottle able to hold a case of wine.

Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuchodonosor is the largest bottle "commonly" produced in Champagne, Bordeaux, and Burgundy. In all three regions these bottles contain 15 litres of wine, the equivalent of 20 750ml bottles. The name in its various spellings comes from the greatest King of the Assyrians.

Melchior is the name given to a bottle that contains 18 litres of wine, the equivalent of two cases. These bottles are occasionally produced in Burgundy and Champagne to mark special occasions and vintages. These bottles get their names, like Balthazar, from another of the Three Wise Men.
Solomon is the name given to bottles containing 20 litres of wine, or 27 standard bottles. These are rarely produced, and when they are they typically come from Champagne. The name comes from King Solomon.

25 Litre bottles of Champagne are called Sovereign, Soverign and are exceedingly rare. The name has also been used to describe any bottle greater than 25 Liters. Bottles of this size are typically filled with wines that were aged in standard bottles just before leaving the winery. These bottles can be opened using standard waiter style corkscrews. Though beware, pouring out of bottles this size is nearly impossible and an immediate decanting (into 33+ bottles or decanters) is recommended.

Bottles containing 27 liters are occasionally produced, typically by commission, and are called Primat. These bottles hold the equivalent of three cases of wine. The name comes from the Latin word for "leader" and means the best, the top, or the most prized. I've seen a Primat of Charles Krug Cabernet bottled specially for Morton's with a suggested retail price of $2,000 and a weight of over 100 pounds up for a charity auction.

Melchizedek was a Biblical King of Shalem whose name has been used for bottles containing 30 liters. These are rarely produced, and when they are they typically come from Bordeaux and Burgundy and rarely more than one from a winery in a given year.

Murgatoryd is the name given to bottles containing 50 liters of wine or the equivalent of 67 standard bottles. I've not been able to find much information on these bottles or the origin of the name, though it appears in England as early as the 14th century.

For the purpose of comparison a Barrel of wine contains 180 liters or 240 standard bottles, or the equivalent of 6 Melchizedeks or 3.6 Murgatoryds.

The largest bottle of wine ever produced was bottled in 2006 by a group of five Australian wineries and the wine was called Five Virtues. The bottle contains 290 liters (1.61 barrels) of Shiraz, is more than 6' 5" tall and weighs in at 1,300 pounds. The cork alone is reported to have cost $3,500 (perhaps as much as the Shiraz). This was done as a publicity stunt to sell numerous 750ml bottles of wine by the same name.

Prior to 2006 the largest bottle ever produced was commissioned by Morton's in 2004 for an anniversary celebration. The bottle was custom blown in Sazova, Czech Republic and contained 130 liters of Beringer Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. The 4' 6" tall bottle weighed 340 pounds and was auctioned by Sotheby's at one of it's wine sales with the $50,000 winning bid going to charity.


MIMILEE said...

What a fabulous tutorial on WINES!! I am going to keep this one for further reference! Great, great post!

Anonymous said...


I'm curious about your statement that U.S. producers cannot bottle 9liter bottles. Could you possible refer me to the section in the CFR regarding this restriction? Please email me at randy_reidelbach at hotmail 'dot' com. Thanks for your help.

Space Cadet said...

Interesting stuff, and nicely presented. Some things caught my eye. In my world, a barrel is about 60 gallons. It it isn't, I've bought way too much glass. But what I really wanted to ask about was your statement that 'US wine producers are prohibited from bottling in 9 liter bottles regardless of what they would choose to call them.' Can you tell me where you got this information? Title 27 4:72 says you can bottle in even liter sizes 4L and larger. I ask because my boss has me going nuts trying to find 9L DLG Burgundies. You know where I can find any? Everybody's got clarets. Nobody's got burgundies.

Athenaeus said...

Space Cadet - I stand corrected on the 9 liter prohibition. I promulgated a half-truth obtained by a well meaning and typically spot-on wine merchant as well as the collective wisdom of the internet. The confusion comes from Champagne where the Salamanzar has over the years contained either 10 or 12 bottles worth of wine. In the case of 10 bottles this would be 17.5 liters and as such would be a violation of Title 27 4:72. If they contain 12 bottles, as you point out, it would be an even 9 liters of wine and thus allowed.

Athenaeus said...

Space Cadet - I'm but a mere consumer of wine not a producer so I'm afraid I'm no help in your search for the elusive 9L "Burgundy" bottles. I hope you are able to find them so that you can bring the equivalent of a case of wine in one bottle to market.