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

Canadian wine tasting in London, UK: “Amazing!”

“My inbox is full of compliments about the amazing evening of Canadian wines;  the participants loved the event”:  so comments the organizer of a Canadian Wine Tasting event in London in October.

For those who know Canadian wines, this response is not surprising but nevertheless it’s good to hear.

A couple of months ago, I was asked to advise on wines for a Canadian wine tasting at a private function in London. I am happy to support Canadian wine export efforts in even a minor way and so I was delighted to help and have the opportunity to lead this wine tasting event.

First of all, I established my criteria for recommending wines for the tasting:

1,  The wines had to represent Canada as a whole, not just British Columbia or Ontario but coast to coast, which meant including Atlantic Canada.

2.   The wines had to be available in the UK.  No point in presenting wines that couldn’t be accessed locally.

3.    To the extent possible, I wanted to be familiar with the individual wines and wineries.

Meeting these criteria was interesting in itself.    Figuring out which wineries were represented in the UK and by whom took some digging.   Given the peculiarities of interprovincial trade within Canada, identifying suitable wine choices from Atlantic Canada and Ontario involved some risk taking as I didn’t taste my wine recommendations from these two areas in advance.   I relied upon my network to suggest appropriate  Nova Scotia and Ontario wines.   I kept hearing about Benjamin Bridge sparkling wines from Nova Scotia and I knew that Peller Estates in the Niagara Peninsular consistently win awards for their Riesling Ice wine.

Here are the five Canadian wines I recommended and which we tasted together with the name of the UK organization where they can be purchased

We tasted them in the following order:

Nova Scotia

Benjamin Bridge Brut Sparkling Wine 2011.  Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia,   Handcrafted from 100% Chardonnay.   With maritime freshness and soft bubbles, this ‘methode classique’ sparkling wine set the tone for excellence. Regarded by many as the best Sparkling wine in Canada.    benjaminbridge.com.  Available from Friarwood com.

British Columbia

Meyer Family Vineyard Chardonnay 2013   Apples, plums, pears, and other flavours roll into yellow fruit, smoky spices and mineral elements.  Recognized as #2 small winery in Canada in 2017.    We enjoy both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made by this Okanagan Falls winery and are members of their wine club.  I have got to know JAK Meyer, proprietor over the past few years. mfvwines.com  Available from Davy.co.uk and also from Marks and Spenser.

Clos du Soleil Signature 2012.   Certified organic winery produces their flagship red wine from their vineyards in the Similkameen Valley and in Osoyoos, Okanagan Valley.  Old world elegance and new world edge is how they describe their style.    Hand harvested, gently fermented and aged for 18 months in French oak barrels.   We visited Clos du Soleil a few years ago and met the founder, Spenser Massie.   We admire their wine making values and the grandeur of the location.   clos du Soleil.ca.  Available from Cellier.co.uk

Burrowing Owl Estate Winery Meritage 2012.    This is their Bordeaux style red wine with layers of complexity.  Red and black fruit, sweet spices and chocolate.  We have been visiting Burrowing Owl Winery for many years and also enjoy the hospitality at their on site guest house.   We enjoy the wines, the ambience of the place, and support their efforts for the preservation of the burrowing owl species and conservation of the habitat of this endangered underground nesting bird.  Located in Oliver, Okanagan Valley.  burrowingowlwine.ca.   Available from Drayman.co.uk.   On a weekend in Shropshire, West Midlands we also discovered Burrowing Owl wine in the historic town of Shrewsbury  at Tanners Wine Merchants.  tanners-wines.co.uk

 

Ontario

Peller Estates Winery, Ice Wine Riesling 2013.  Picked at the coldest moment on a winter’s night, each frozen grape creates just one drop of Ice Wine.  Smooth, luxurious, honeyed, captivating.  Our hosts provided a generous selection of crackers and cheeses, including blue cheese which enabled me to demonstrate the magical pairing of Ice Wine and blue cheese, and made the point better than any description.  Located at Niagara-on-the-Lake.   peller.com.   Available from Majestic.co.uk.

There are many excellent Canadian wine choices and these wines that I have selected may tempt the wine enthusiast to further exploration.    I also suggest checking out the listed websites for further insights into dynamic Canadian approaches to wine tourism.

It has been a pleasure and privilege to introduce these excellent Canadian wines to a group of wine enthusiasts in London.  The wines speak for themselves and we had fun tasting and chatting about them.   One of the participants was from Nova Scotia and described the beauty of the Gaspereau Valley where Benjamin Bridge is situated.

This is the 60th posting on my blog.  It feels like a milestone to me and somehow appropriate to be writing about Canadian wines because Canada is where I live.

Not bad, eh!

_________

With Thanks:

To Davy Wine Merchants for their assistance in the final sourcing of the wines.

To the Canadian Trade Commission for supplying information about Canadian wine regions for wine tasting participants..