The Culture of Food and Drink

Home / Drinking  / Wine Bottle Primer

Wine Bottle Primer

Every wine store seems to have at least one large bottle on display, bigger than a magnum but smaller than a 6-year-old. There are, in fact, more than 20 sizes of wine and champagne bottles, ranging in volume from tiniest (just a fifth of a liter) to gargantuan (30 liters). The list below is from small to large.

Piccolo: Italian for “small,” this kid sister of the wine bottle family holds just a quarter of a standard bottle, or one nicely poured glass. Also known as a “pony.”

Chopine: Holding a third of a standard bottle, this measurement is named for the foot-tall platform shoes popular in France and Italy during the Renaissance. (The shoes required the help of two servants to put them on.) What exactly that has to do with small volumes of wine we’re not certain, but any more than a third of a bottle and these shoes might have been your downfall.

Demi: Also called a split, a demi (French for “half”) is half a standard bottle of wine.

Tenth: One-tenth of a U.S. gallon.

Jennie: Welsh for “White Spirit,” this bottle which holds 50 cl or half a liter of sweet wine such as sauternes or jerez.

Clavelin: Used exclusively in France for vin jaune, an oak-aged, high-alcohol French wine, the odd volume of the Clavelin (21 ounces or 0.62 liters) is said to come from the amount of wine left in the cask after six years of aging.

Standard: Your average, run-of-the-mill wine bottle clocks in at 0.75 liters.

Fifth: Precisely 0.007 liters more than a standard bottle. One-fifth of a U.S. gallon.

Magnum: The most commonly seen of the larger bottles, a magnum holds two bottles, or 1.5 liters of wine.

Marie-Jeanne: Rarely seen and almost exclusively containing bordeaux, this dainty lady offers 2.25 liters, or three standard bottles.

Jeroboam: Also known as the double magnum, this 3-liter bottle is named for the biblical figure who supervised King Solomon’s slaves. A fitting tribute to a “man of great worth,” as these bottles are pricey.

Rehoboam: The equivalent of six standard bottles of wine, the Rehoboam is named for the son and successor of King Solomon, who brutalized his slaves. Hey, after six bottles, it’s anyone’s game.

Imperial: Holding 6 liters of wine, the Imperial stands an impressive 2 feet tall and contains bordeaux.

Methuselah: Named for the oldest man mentioned by age in the Bible (also Noah’s grandfather), the Methuselah also holds 6 liters and is usually reserved for sparkling wines.

Mordecai/Salmanazar: These 9-liter bottles contain a whopping case of wine each, which really cuts down on packaging.

Balthazar: This “wise man” brings the greatest gift of all: 12 liters, or 16 bottles of wine.

Nebuchadnezzar: This King of Babylon sent the Jews into exile and in return was awarded the title of “He Who Holds 15 Liters of Wine.”

Melchior: And this wise man brought two cases, besting Balthazar by eight bottles.

Solomon: All right, we’re getting tired of making up stories behind bottles’ names (as there currently are no real explanations). Suffice it to say that the 20 liters of wine this bad boy holds would smooth over any potential conflicts between a king and his deity.

Sovereign: At this point, bottles become showpieces in a wine cellar, shop or restaurant as they approach (and pass) 3 feet tall. This royal addition to any collection holds 25 liters.

Primat: Pronounced PREE-mah, this giant weighs nearly 150 pounds. Grab a few strong-backed friends to help you drink straight from the bottle.

Melchizedek: At last, we come to the largest of the large bottles. Named for the King of Peace in the Old Testament, we figure he was a pretty great guy if the early 20th century Americans named the biggest wine vessel — the equivalent of a staggering 40 bottles — after him.

Jess Kapadia is a food writer in New York.

Photo: Bottles. Credit: Walter Nissen.