Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk
July 9, 2010
If you have more than a passing understanding of Jeroboam and Methuselah, then I would guess 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.
At some point, you’ve likely entered a restaurant and spied a gargantuan 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 the 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 750mm bottles that you would find on your wine shop’s shelves or on a restaurant wine list. Large formats begin with “Magnums,” which hold 1500mm, the equivalent of two bottles of wine.
From there it gets a little trickier.
You see, different wines from different regions use different large-format bottles so they can be, well, different. A “Double Magnum” of Bordeaux, for example, holds four bottles. A four-banger of either Champagne or Burgundy would be called a “Jeroboam,” but a Bordeaux “Jeroboam” would hold six standard bottles. Got it? Vive la difference!
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From there the size of the large-format bottles just continues to grow. We’ll stick with the Burgundian sizes to make it simple, but next up is the Methuselah, which holds eight standard bottles, the Balthazar holding 16, 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 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, well, no one really knows, as far as I can tell. It is assumed that when bottles came into standard use in the early 1700s, post-jug generation, big bottles were bought by rich folks who displayed their wealth 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, 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 guests start thinking dessert.
In a quick sampling of Aspen wine shops, I found a number of Magnums of different varietals available. Carl’s Pharmacy, for example, 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, I suggest you enter the bidding in an online wine auction, where there may be a lot containing a Methuselah of Romanee-Conti, Domaine de la Romanee-Conti – Vintage 1976. That’s eight standard bottles of Pinot Noir from a legendary winemaker from a solid, but not exceptional, vintage. It has the added attraction of being from the year of the American Bicentennial. Suggested bids range from $26,000-$36,000.
Serving that with your summer barbecue would be, well, biblical.