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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Jeroboams & Balthazars, Part 1: Wine Bottles of Typical Proportions

On a daily basis, the wine bottle sizes that you'll most likely encounter are the 750 milliliter and the 1.5 liter. They're known as the standard and the magnum, respectfully, and they fill the shelves of wine shops and aisles of liquor stores everywhere. You'll also see "splits" and smaller bottles in four packs regularly, with sparkling wine as the more common purchase in those formats. But did you know there's a 6 liter bottle? A 30 liter bottle?

Banfi Centine - standard bottle vs Jeroboam
These smaller or larger bottles also have names that have been applied to them besides just a description of their volume or content. Their namesake, once you get over 3 liters, strictly comes from the kings and characters of ancient mythology. More specifically: the Tanakh of Judaism (the Old Testament of the Christian Bible). And one of those fellas, the biggest one of them all, is from Greek mythology. Hint: he likes gold.

Some of these characters after which these bottle sizes were named were real people implemented into the stories and some of them were completely fabricated or legendary figures embellished through religious text. But also some of these bottle names in the lesser sizes come from something else entirely, like the pleasantly small "piccolo".

A friend of mine, namely my personal history expert and special guest editor Graham Richardson, had come across, IIRC, the "Methuselah" six liter bottle. He messaged me asking if all of the bottle sizes for wine had Biblical names. After we began investigating the topic he stated "I think I smell an article." He was actually smelling nachos but an article was a good idea.

In the two and a half years I've been doing this, you should know that I don't do things simply and easily. So rather than just spit out the names of the bottle sizes with a blurb that says "Biblical King" or whatever, let's get into the stories of their namesakes.

The sizes between tiny and three liters have the theme of either being fairly simple or simply "nobody knows". I'm going to cover those right here, right now in Part 1: Wine Bottles of Typical Proportions. It'll be a quick and fun read.

But the larger sizes... that is where this infidel will be opening up the Bible for the first time in many, many years. You may actually feel me rolling my eyes through the internet in Part 2: Wine Bottles of Biblical Proportions and Part 3: Wine Bottles of Colossal Proportions.

187.5 milliliter
Pony / Quarter
Piccolo (Sparkling)

187.5 milliters? That makes my head spin. In simple terms: it's 1/4th of your standard 750 ml bottle.

I very much want to tell you that "piccolo" comes from Dragon Ball or Seaquest DSV but sadly it's not. However, it's not going to stop me from showing a picture from the former.

This piccolo is a small bottle that holds a single serving of sparkling wine. The name originates from the Italian piccolo, meaning small. But check this out: a piccolo is also the name of a musical instrument, which is a small flute. The glassware that sparkling wine has been served in since forever (until recently when we all collectively decided it tastes better in a wine glass) is called a flute. So a piccolo can be fully poured into a flute. We should start calling the cheap plastic flutes "recorders". HA! Get it?

The same size is also referred to as a pony or quarter for both sparkling and non-sparkling wines.

Chopine shoe
IMAGE CREDIT: parkstoneinternational
250 milliliter

This is 1/3rd of the 750 ml standard bottle. The chopine was a unit of liquid volume used in France before the French Revolution, when the liter was created as a standardized measurement.

The origin of the chopine is probably related to the shoe that you see in the picture to the right. I'm not sure if the unit was named after the chopine shoe, the chopine shoe was named after the unit, or neither. I can't find that connection or denial of it. But check out those platform shoes. They originated in Venice and were popular from the 15th to 17th century. The higher they got the higher the status of the lucky (uncomfortable) lady that wore them. Even if the French unit has nothing to due with these shoes, it does have one thing in common with wine: they were made out of cork, just like the stoppers for wine bottles. They became so popular in Spain that at one point more cork was used to make them than was used for any other purpose.

Regardless, the French chopine unit of liquid volume was adopted by Scotland and eventually became known as the pint. Chopine's are kind of a weird thing because bottles now called a chopine are 250 ml, while the actual pint unit of volume is 476.1 ml. That's almost double the volume of the wine bottle. Apparently you still order "a chopine" of beer in Quebec instead of "a pint".

375 milliliter
Demi / Tenth / Half 

Just half of the standard 750 ml bottle. Nothing to see here except the visualization to the right.

500 milliliter
Demie / Pinte (Champagne)
Jennie (Sweet Wines)

3/4 of your standard 750 ml bottle. In Champagne they'll call the 500 ml a demie or pinte. And yes, the pinte is much closer to a pint than the chopine.

The Jennie is used for dessert wines and sweet wines mostly from Tokaj, Sauternes and Jerez. But just who is this mysterious Jennie? I think I know and I'll have to give her a ring. I still remember her number from the 80's. (Way to go for the obvious joke, Joey.)

ur basic.
750 milliliter

Nobody really knows exactly how this was decided to be the best bottle size for wine, even though we know it didn't become an international standard until the 1970's because of a push for (you won't believe it) trade standardization, but there are several hypotheses. One of them is that it contains the amount of air a glassblower can produce in one blow to make the bottles quickly and efficiently. Another is that it was set by the Americans in an attempt to turn over to the metric system. It could be because it's so easy to carry. Or that it was just the natural volume of wine for sharing at dinner.

My favorite is this one, presented by Catags on Reddit: I can only speak for the French standardization, but here’s how it happened. It dates back to the 19th Century. It started in Bordeaux, where their main foreign clients were the English. But French & English never had the same measure system, so it was hard to find an agreement. The Imperial Gallon was up to 4,54609 “litres”. So they had to find an easier way to count. Example of a common ground: wine was put in barrels of 225 liters, or 50 gallons. 225 liters also equals 300 bottles of 75cl. 1 barrel = 50 gallons = 300 75cl bottles. It’s just a game of “find the common determinator. Also, it explains why wine was (and still is) sold in boxes of 6 or 12. 6x0.75 =4.5 (1 gallon)

Magnus Maximus
1.5 liter
Magnum / Handle

Twice your standard bottle of wine. The Magnum gets its name from magnus, the latin word for greatMagnus was also used by the Romans as a first name but it wasn't really all that popular. One example of the name is Magnus Maximus, an Emperor of the Western Roman Empire in the late 4th century. It probably wasn't the best name for him though. His reign lasted five years and ended with his defeat and death, ending the empire's reach into Britain and Gaul.

2.25 liter

This is the size of three standard bottles. Literally the only thing out there on the woman in which the Marie-Jeanne is named after is that she was a wine connoisseur from the 18th century. Maybe Jennie knows more about her.

3 liter
Double Magnum / Jug

It's completely obvious that this is two magnums and thus double the greatness! W00T W00T! In America our double magnums tend to be in the shape of a jug, and that's exactly what we call them.

To be continued...

So here I awkwardly cut off and refer you to the upcoming sequels, and I feel obligated to tell you the reasoning for it.

Why couldn't I cover everything in one post? At its very core, isn't this a list of the different bottle sizes and the story behind their names? Shouldn't they be contained in one, flowing, easily accessible source? I agree with the intent of those questions, if in fact you're asking them. When you expect explanations on subjects these days then you expect them in a vertical, complete fashion.

You can find a quick list of these sizes and their names all over the internet. So I wanted a more informative, story-telling approach than others. I started writing this 3-part series as one piece and it clearly, visually wanted to be separated. Because what you see above, everything three liters and below, is child's play. It's quick drops of info with historically no juicy substance. The smaller bottles are simply inferior in both size and story.

As a whole the gradient just didn't flow smoothly. After this there's no more small paragraphs with pictures of Dragon Ball or "ur basic" to lighten the mood. We're about to get Biblical. We're going from old units of measurement, to small dick shaming, to chopping babies in half.

Part 2: Wine Bottles of Biblical Proportions and Part 3: Wine Bottles of Colossal Proportions are both ready to read right now.

- Joey Casco, CSW/CSS

Guest Editor and Researcher: Graham Richardson
I have to give a million thank you's to Graham, who proof read and fact checked this article series, even wrote pieces of it here and there, and was instrumental in the research. You've seen me thank him on other history articles before but there is absolutely no way I could have EVER done this one without him. Thanks again, Graham.

Part 1: Wine Bottles of Typical Proportions
Part 2: Wine Bottles of Biblical Proportions
Part 3: Wine Bottles of Colosal Proportions


The Oxford Companion to Wine
Wine Bottle Sizes
Complete Guide to all Large Format Wine Bottles, Sizes and Shapes
Champagne bottle name origins
Bottle sizes
The Sommelier Update: Bottle Sizes
When and how did 750 mL become the standard size for wine and liquor bottles?
Everything you always wanted to know about big wine bottles
Give A Girl The Right Shoes And She Can Conquer The World
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  1. Great lead in, and a rich trove of bar trivia- Outstanding job, both of you!

  2. What you should emphasize is how infrequently the the odd sizes are used. Most especially the very large bottles. It has been said that there have been more very large bottles of old Bordeaux sold than were ever known to be produced. Large bottles have played an important role in famous wine frauds.

    1. Hello, mgraves! Thanks for the info! Do you mind if I quote you for that in Part 2? :)



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