Big wine bottles offer biblical flair
October 30, 2007
If you have more than a passing understanding of Jeroboam and Methuselah, then 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 displayed on a counter, perhaps signed by the winemaker. It might have been a “Jeroboam.” If the bottle was truly, truly humongous, then 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 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-milliliter bottles that you would find on your wine shop’s shelves or on a restaurant wine list. Large formats begin with “Magnums,” which hold 1500 milliliters, the equivalent of two bottles of wine. From here it gets a little trickier. You see, different wines from different regions use different large-format bottles in order to 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?From there the large-format bottles just get 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 Red Mountain budgets only, the “Melchior,” which holds 24 standard bottles, or as I like to call it, two cases. Party on. The Melchiors are extremely rare and are 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 … 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” 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 Thanksgiving dinner, one that doesn’t run dry until your family and friends start thinking pumpkin pie. In a quick sampling of Aspen wine shops, I found a number of magnums of different varietals available. Carl’s Pharmacy always carries a Jeroboam or two of Veuve Clicquot and has a nice Chappellet Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 in the Jeroboam format.But if you want to knock them dead this Thanksgiving, I suggest you enter the bidding at morrellwineauctions.com, where, on Nov. 17, Lot 19 will be a Methuselah of Romanée-Conti, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, vintage 1976. That’s eight standard bottles of pinot noir from a legendary winemaker from a solid, though not exceptional, vintage. It has the added attraction of being from the year of the American Bicentennial. Suggested bids range from $26,000 to $36,000.Serving that with your Turkey dinner would be, well, biblical.Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.