Walking in central London, I see the sign for Hedonism Wines. I’ve read the name of this shop in a magazine article and decide to drop in to have a look. I am greeted with a cornucopia of wines and spirits in a modern, dynamic environment. It’s a great find for anyone interested in wine.
The large format wine bottles really attract my attention!
The bottle with the gold coloured label (bottom left) contains 15000 milliliters of Chateau Palmer 2010, Margaux, Bordeaux. It’s the equivalent of 20 bottles, called a Nebuchadnezzar.
The use of large format wine bottles interests me for several reasons: the names given to these outsize bottles, the impact of large format bottles on the wine ageing process, and the trends in their use.
To help remember the names and dimensions, here’s a chart I prepared.
With the exception of Magnum, the names used for these large format bottles all refer to kings in the Bible’s Old Testament. After some research into this, it seems the reason that biblical names are used has been lost in the mists of time, other than that the names relate to powerful kings. For example, Nebuchadnezzar is the Babylonian king famous for the hanging gardens of Babylon, who lived approximately between 605 BC and 562 BC.
It is thought that the use of these biblical names originates in the 1700s. I don’t know if the use of these names originated in France or elsewhere. Assuming the use may have originated in France, a link to the notion of powerful kings is that the early years of the 1700s were the latter years of the reign of an absolute monarch, Louise X1V. French historians generally regard the Age of Enlightenment (think Voltaire and Rousseau with their revolutionary ideas) as commencing with the death of Louise X1V in 1715 and ending with the outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789. This ended the Ancien Regime, however, the biblical names have stuck!
The wine ageing process is complex based on a variety of chemical reactions in the wine as it ages. It is also somewhat controversial.
Wine ageing pays tribute to the skills of the vine grower and the wine maker. The vine grower’s responsibilities in the vineyard with respect to managing the terroir, soils, weather and grape varieties form the platform for the wine maker’s approaches to producing quality wine. The appellation rules apply by region in terms of blends of allowable varieties and length of time for winemaking processes.
The value of ageing wine beyond the typical period of 12 – 24 months for red wines is often a factor of the grape varieties in the wine. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah red grape varieties, which have high levels of flavour compounds or phenolics such as tannins, can benefit from further bottle ageing. Various grape varieties have recognized ageing potential. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon has from 4 – 20 years, Merlot 2 – 10 years.
So, if some wines can benefit from further bottle ageing, what is the advantage of using large format bottles, such as Magnums or Jeroboams or even Nebuchadnezzars?
It’s about the rate of ageing. In all large format wine bottles, wine ages more slowly than in a smaller-size container. The wine generally retains fresher aromas for a longer period of time as less oxygen enters the bottle through the cork relative to the volume of wine in the bottle. Oxidization, light and temperature can all degrade a wine if not managed carefully. It also means that if you buy a half bottle of wine, enjoy it and don’t keep it for a rainy day!
The controversy around wine ageing is that some authorities suggest that wine is consumed older than is preferable. Ageing changes wine but whether it improves it or worsens it varies. Certainly, ageing will not improve a poor quality wine.
An economic factor that impacts the winemaking choices around ageing wine is the cost of storage. It certainly is only economical to age quality wine and many varieties of wine do not appreciably benefit from ageing regardless of quality.
Personally, as a general practice, we don’t keep white wine longer than two years beyond the vintage and drink it within one year by preference. We buy red wine that we can cellar for another 2 – 5 years and that is as far out time-wise as we select. All this affects our purchasing approach, as we have learnt from experience that buying beyond one’s capacity to enjoy the wine is not a good idea!
Factoring in the economics means that the current trend is to make wine that can be enjoyed in the shorter term. Added to this is the fact that less wine is consumed these days due to health considerations including driving restrictions.
When discussing large format bottles recently with a wine maker in the Pécharmant area of the Bergerac Wine Region, I was told that the demand for large format bottles is declining. Apart from the decline in consumption, people live in smaller homes and entertain differently. The benefit of having that large Jeroboam or Nebuchadnezzar on hand is less evident! Today, these large format bottles are used more commonly for celebrations and gifts. Magnums of champagne are commonly bought for weddings and other celebrations. Magnums, Jeroboams, Salamanzars and even Nebuchadnezzars of fine wine are used as gifts and are generally specially ordered from the relevant chateau or winery.
A friend recently sent me this photo of a Jeroboam of Merlot 2014 from Burrowing Owl winery in the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia. This was a gift from a client. Another great example of a fine wine in a large format bottle.
Its good to see old traditions continue in the spirit of generosity. I like to think that those old kings would be amused.
Best wishes for 2020.
References: various sources,
Hedonism Wines: hedonism.co.uk