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Bottles of Size
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed October 15, 2002. For more information go to

As autumn progresses and the holiday nears, I'm starting to get the annual flurry of questions about celebratory wines in oversize bottles. So I hope you'll indulge a "rerun" today as I update my last report on this topic from November 1999.

Although wine goes back at least 5,000 years to Bronze Age times, the wine bottle as we know it today is only a little over 300 years old. It was only in the late 1600s that improving glass technology made feasible a consistently shaped, cylindrical glass bottle that could be stacked on its side to facilitate shipment, storage and cellaring.

The "fifth" bottle, originally one-fifth of a gallon in English-speaking nations but now rounded off metrically to 750 ml, was allegedly chosen as the standard size in times past because it was considered a suitable ration for one (although it's worth noting that most wine was quite low in alcoholic strength in those days). Another theory holds that this size bottle was actually the largest that early glass-blowers could produce with one full breath.

But even in older times, wines for special occasions were occasionally put up in impressive, oversize bottles. For reasons lost to history, many of these bottles were given the names of Biblical figures like the evil king Nebuchadnezzar and the long-lived Methuselah.

The naming conventions varied somewhat among wine regions, with the two standards being Champagne and Bordeaux in France. In case you run into a big bottle, here's a quick field guide to the larger sizes:

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Jeroboam: 3 liters (four bottles)
Rehoboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles)
Methuselah: 6 liters (eight bottles)
Salmanazar: 9 liters (12 bottles)
Balthazar: 12 liters (16 bottles)
Nebuchadnezzar: 15 liters (20 bottles)

Even larger sizes are occasionally seen, although they are very rare:

Solomon: 20 liters (28 bottles)
Primat: 27 liters (36 bottles)

Magnum: 1.5 liters (two bottles)
Marie-Jeanne: 2.25 liters (three bottles)
Double Magnum: 3 liters (four bottles)
Jeroboam: 4.5 liters (six bottles) *
Imperiale: 6 liters (eight bottles)

*Because of recent U.S. regulations limiting larger bottles to even liter sizes, some modern red-wine "Jeroboams" are now 5 liters rather than the traditional 4.5.


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