Magnums and Jeroboams: what’s in a name?

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

New Wine for a New Year: Soirée Vigneronne, Bergerac Wine Region, France

The low barrel ceiling of the cellar area of the old Château in Saussignac in South West France is home to the 2018 New Wine presentation by local winemakers.

We walk beside the dark stone exterior wall of the Château, using a powerful torch to prevent us slipping into muddy pot holes or against large rocks or tree roots.   We open the outer door and are greeted by a burst of yellow light and the sound of cheerful chatter as we step down onto the old stone-flagged floor of this cavernous area.

An informal gathering of over 100 people of all ages, from grandparents to grandchildren, is here to sample some new wines.  It’s a casual opportunity to meet neighbours and friends in this small village nestled in the vineyards of the Bergerac Wine Region near the town of Bergerac on the Dordogne River.

Stretched along the middle length of the long, narrow room are picnic tables, the sort that get stacked in village halls for events, joined end to end to accommodate the community meal this evening.   It’s organized as an “Auberge Espagnole” which for the uninitiated is a gathering in which every person or family bring their own food, drink and utensils and generally share what they bring.  It’s basically Bring Your Own and Clear Up Afterwards!  A fantastic, civilized and practical way for communities to socialize and share a meal together.     After all, food, and in this case wine, is at the heart of most convivial community initiatives all over the world.    So forewarned is forearmed: if you see a poster for an “Auberge Espagnole”, don’t try to reserve a room, start cooking and pack up your picnic basket!

Circulating around the room, we talk to three local winemakers who offered some of their new wines for tasting:

Gabriel Grinou from Château Grinou in nearby Monestier

Sue and Humphrey Temperley from Château Lestevenie, also in Monestier

Olivier Roche from Château Le Tap in Saussignac

Each winemaker mentioned that 2018 has been a challenging year due to the weather and the mildew.   There was a wet spring followed by a hot summer that turned into the hottest summer in France since 1947.   Mildew is a fungal disease that can affect the grapes and needs to be managed very carefully throughout the growing season and around harvesting time.  For farmers such as these, who practise organic or near organic farming methods, there are bigger challenges dealing with mildew, as there are fewer options for fighting diseases.

in spite of the inherent challenges in farming, which vary year to year, the winemakers are overall positive about the 2018 harvest with better grapes and higher yield in general than in 2017, which was a very difficult year.   I certainly see smiling faces among the group!

What we tasted:

Sue and Humphrey Temperley from award-winning Château Lestevenie offered their 2018 Bergerac Rosé.  A blend of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon providing strawberry flavour with a hint of spice, Humphrey says ”…their best ever”.    In the photo below, the bottle is empty!  And as Sue says,  “…unfortunately, you can’t see the amazing colour”.    You can check out their website at: http://www.chateau-lestevenie.com

Olivier Roche from Château Le Tap, certified organic in 2010, offered his 2018 Bergerac White Sec.  Consistently a good quality wine, this is our “go to” white wine.    Olivier and Mireille Roche also offer gîte accommodation at their vineyard for wine tasting holidays!   http://www.chateauletap.fr

Gabriel Grinou from certified organic vineyard Château Grinou generously offered a basket of new wines for tasting.  The team of father and two sons are known for their high quality wines.    I tasted several from the wine basket and found their new and still developing red to be sunny and rich with lots of potential.   http://www.chateaugrinou.com

Farming and wine making are challenging endeavours at the best of times.    We greatly enjoyed the Soirée Vigneronne organized by the Cafe Associatif in Saussignac and wish all the winemakers a successful New Year with their New Wines.

In closing our last post for this year,  we extend best wishes to all for a healthy, happy and peaceful New Year!  See you in 2019.

elizabethsvines