One of the aspects of enjoying wine that really confuses most end-users has nothing to do with the endless array of grapes utilized, the places where wine is grown and made, the “rules” of what you can eat with what wine and the seemingly non-communicative nature of winespeak. Those terms and descriptors are often used just to impress.
Wine’s packaging, the bottles, are often the topics of questions and bewilderment.
Most spirits are quite straightforward with their bottles, presenting elaborate containers only for special holidays or unique releases of singular productions. A bottle of Irish whiskey, tequila, bourbon or scotch is associated with the specific distillery and no other distillery would dare, under penalty of lawsuit, intrude into the design or concept.
This is not so with wine. Just about all wineries within a region, or those working with the same grape worldwide, follow the pattern of using the same shape bottle, same color glass and other similarities of presentatin – such as label design, stopper-type, top-of-bottle wrap and depth of punt, which is that indentation in the bottom of the bottle.
Here’s a broad overview, and we welcome any questions beyond this presentation.
750 ml bottle – the standard bottle we are most familiar with and the one that takes up most of the room on that wine wall at retail stores. Often called a “fifth” because the measurement is about 1/5 of a metric liquid gallon, which is about 3800 milliliters. In 1979, the U.S. formally adapted this measurement to conform with the metric measurement, then in use over most of the world. The speculation is that the 750 ml quantity was settled on because this was a reasonable size for transportation, storage and use. It’s a chicken and egg situation as to whether lawmakers actually set this size threshold as a tax breaking point with higher volumes being taxed at a different rate.
Related bottle sizes to the 750 ml are the 187 ml, called a Quarter or Piccolo (Italian for “small.”), and the 375 ml, known as a half-bottle or a demi-bottle.
Then going up from the 750 ml there’s the Magnum, which is two 750 ml standard-sized bottles in one 1.5-liter package. The Magnum is the only large-format wine bottle, which is the same quantity when used in Champagne, Burgundy and Bordeaux, and it is the largest wine bottle not named after a Biblical King or an historical figure. The name comes from the Latin, magnus, which means “great.”
Next size up is the Double Magnum, 3.0 liters, known in Champagne and Burgundy as a Jeroboam, named after the first king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel who ruled in the late 10th Century. The bottle holds the liquid equivalent of four standard 750 ml bottles, which is two Magnums.
Next size up is a Rehobaum, and here it begins to get tricky. In Bordeaux, this size bottle (4.5 liters) is called a Jeroboam, which differs from Champagne’s Jeroboam. In Champagne and Burgundy, the 4.5 liter bottle is a Rehobaum. These sizes in all areas are very rare. They are named for an Israelite king, the son of King Solomon.
An Imperial or a Methuselah holds six liters of wine, enough for about 40 glasses, or eight standard wine bottles. Bordeaux uses the term “Imperial,” while Champagne and Burgundy use “Methuselah.”
The term “Imperial” likely refers to the glory days of the French Empire. “Methuselah” was an Israelite King, the father of Noah and the oldest man who ever lived, 969 years.
Next up is the 9 liter Salmanazar, holding the equivalent of 12 bottles or 60 glasses of wine. This size is named for an ancient King of Syria, who does not seem to have done anything of note. Go figure.
This bottle is special among large format wine bottles in that every region seems to be in agreement on the size and the name.
From there, there are bottles that are rarely seen:
- Balthazar – at 12 liters, the equivalent of 16 standard bottles of wine. Named for one of the Three Kings/Wise Men who traveled to pay respects to the birth of the baby Jesus.
- Nebuchadnezzar – at 15 liters, the equivalent of 20 standard bottles of wine, and named for a famous King of Babylon.
- Melchior – at 18 liters of wine, the equivalent of 24 standard bottles. Named for another of the Three Wise Men who visited the baby Jesus after his birth.
Champagnes, in particular, produce the larger formats of Primat (27 liters, equivalent to 36 standard bottles) and Melchizedek (30 liters, equivalent to 40 standard bottles).
The larger format bottles are usually desired by collectors, so they are mostly seen at auctions. Because the total surface area of the total volume of wine that comes in contact with air is smaller in a bigger bottle, wines will age more slowly the larger the bottle. Air in the bottle is the main ingredient that makes wine age before opening the bottle.
Also, as if this was not confusing enough, the shape of a wine bottle is a clue as to what the primary grape varietal is in the wine or from what region the wine originated. The slope-shouldered bottle, usually with a low punt (the indentation in the glass at the bottom of the bottle), is commonly a Burgundy or Rhone-style. The high-shouldered bottle, again with a low to medium punt, is from Bordeaux, or mainly has grapes from that area.
Champagne is the thickest bottle with a very deep punt, which gives the glass strength and additional surface area to withstand the pressure inside.
German wines are traditionally packaged in long, narrow-neck bottles.
Within those general bottle-styles and guidelines, all other countries that make wine tend to fall. There are exceptions, such as a Hungarian Pinot Noir in a Bordeaux bottle; but, for the most part, all winemaking areas respect these traditional guidelines.
I am certain that by this time you are confused and thirsty. I can help to resolve the latter.
Read Happy Hour here on www.myneworleans.com every Wednesday, and listen to The Dine, Wine and Spirits Show, hosted by Tim, every weekday, 3:00 – 5:00 p.m. on WGSO 990AM and streamed, as well as stored, at www.wgso.com. Also, check out Last Call, Tim’s photo-feature every month in New Orleans Magazine. Be sure to watch "Appetite for Life" every Thursday evening at 7 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m., on WLAE-TV, Channel 32 in New Orleans. Previously broadcasted episodes are available for viewing at http://www.wlae.com/appetite-for-life/