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Wine bottle sizes

Q From Belinda Hardman: How did wine bottles get names such as Jeroboam, Rehoboam, Methuselah and others? The ancient references of most of the names are obvious; the “how?” and “why?” are not. How was the hierarchy by volume and name determined? For how long does wine have to age for it to be called a Methuselah?

A I’m glad to be able to report that the age of the wine has no connection with these curious names, otherwise a methuselah would have to be aged for 969 years. It’s one of a large set of names for sizes of wine bottle. It’s now illegal to put any of them except one on a bottle and they’ve become curiosities that mainly come up in pub quizzes.

The only term of the set that’s still allowed is magnum, which refers to a bottle containing two standard bottles or 1.5 litres. It’s also the oldest of all the terms, having appeared in English in one of the prose works of the Scots poet Robert Burns, back in 1788. It’s an abbreviation of Latin magnum bonum, a large good thing. It was in Scotland that it acquired the sense of a size of wine bottle and became abbreviated to magnum. It has also been given to a variety of potato, various varieties of cooking plums, a gun, and even a large-barrelled steel pen.

The remainder of the set, as usually quoted in reference books, are jeroboam (4 bottles/3 litres), rehoboam (6/4.5), methuselah (8/6), salmanazar (12/9), balthazar (16/12), nebuchadnezzar (20/15), melchior (24/18), solomon (28/21), sovereign (33.3/25), and primat (36/27). Some lists include the melchizedek, holding 40 standard bottles or 30 litres. The largest sizes refer only to champagne and are extremely rare, not least because it would be almost impossible to lift the bottles.

As you say, most of these are ancient, deriving from the names of kings mentioned in the Bible. Jeroboam, for example, was a king of Israel. His name was first applied to a size of wine bottle in a work by Sir Walter Scott (another Scotsman, you will notice) and seems to have been a joke derived from the description of Jeroboam in the first book of Kings as “a mighty man of valour” who “made Israel to sin”.

The remainder date from much later. Rehoboam (a king of Judah and son of Solomon, also from the first book of Kings) appears in 1895. Nebuchadnezzar (ruler of the Babylonian empire, the man with the famous hanging gardens), turns up in a letter written by Aldous Huxley in 1916. Methuselah, salmanazar and balthazar are all listed for the first time in André Simon’s Dictionary of Wine in 1935. Methuselah is the Old Testament patriarch; Salmanazar is more properly Shalmaneser, a King of Assyria mentioned in the second book of Kings; and Balthazar is assumed in dictionaries to be the king of Babylon whom we know better as Belshazzar, the one who saw the writing on the wall at his feast. However, he might instead be one of the three wise man who with Melchior and Caspar in medieval legend attended the birth of Jesus. I prefer the latter explanation, because Melchior is another in the list.

Apart from magnum and jeroboam, few of these names have ever been used seriously. (The Oxford English Dictionary’s recent revision of its entry for melchior doesn’t even include the wine sense.) They seem to have been fanciful creations, dreamed up by a person or persons unknown on the basis of the Biblical associations of jeroboam. My most diligent search has been unable to find out anything at all about who named them. We’re not even sure in some cases which language they first appeared in. My French dictionaries say jeroboam and rehoboam were imported from English into French at the end of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century respectively. They also say that methuselah (as mathusalem) is not known in French as a name for a wine bottle size before the middle of the twentieth century and salmanazar not before 1964, which suggests that these, too, appeared first in English. But nebuchadnezzar is known as a bottle size in French (as nabuchodonosor) in 1897, before it appeared in English.

In summary, we know a very little about the “how” and the “why”, and nothing at all about the “who”; just a hint to explain why the various names were chosen for the different sizes.

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Page created 27 Jun 2009