Sunday, 22 January 2017


Being a confirmed tee-totaller (unless there are more than 167 hours in the week) it never occurred to me that Champagne is not simply a place name but also the correct name for what is often known as 'bubbly'.

As many will know the rules around the right to call anything 'champagne' has to conform to a series of rules and regulations, these are not important here. However it is worthwhile mentioning that the place name refers to land that is 'flat', ironic for a drink often referred to as 'bubbly'. And while on the subject of words we should also note the alternative use of 'varnish', in the late 19th century used to refer to bad champagne.

Always one to enter a quiz, I have never managed to master the oft-repeated questions regarding champagne bottle sizes. Being a man of words perhaps understanding the origin of the names may be of assistance. As the basis for all of these is the standard bottle, it makes sense to start with the basic term.

Bottle, as we know it, evokes an image of something in glass. Yet glass production means this is a comparatively recent development and early bottles were of leather sealed with pitch. This is the reason we occasionally see pubs named the Leathern Bottle. The word 'bottle' came to English from Old French boteille and of Latin origins in buttis 'a cask' which, albeit on a small scale, a bottle could be said to be. Incidentally, purely as a memory aid, a standard bottle contains 0.75 litres.

Magnum, containing the same as two standard bottles or 1.5 litres, is taken directly from the Latin, the neuter of magnus meaning 'great in size'.

Jeroboam, again doubles the volume at 3 litres, is a name taken from the Bible where Jeroboam was said to be 'a mighty man of valour who made Israel to sin'. His name comes from the Hebrew Yarobh'am, literally 'let the people increase'. (Try and stop them!)

Rehoboam, this equal to 4.5 litres, is another Israelite king mentioned in the Bible. His name comes from the Hebrerw and means 'he who enlarges the people'. (I suppose being king has its benefits.)

Methuselah, this 6 litres, is also named after a Biblical character and one of great age, said to be 969 years old at the time of his death. The origin of his name is disputed, some sources give 'man of the spear' while others translate this as 'his death shall bring judgement'. This latter translation is undoubtedly due to the date of his death being the 11th of Chesvan in the year 1656 Anno Mundi - coincidentally seven days before the start of the Great Flood - he being named as Noah's grandfather.

Salmanazar, 9 litres, was the name of five kings of Assyria (correctly Shalmaneser), although the Biblical theme probably points to the last of his name (727-722BC) and conqueror of the northern part of Israel. Their name is said to mean 'Shulmanu is preeminent', in the area of Mesopotamia during the Bronze Age he the god of the underworld, fertility and war. (With so many diverse strings to his proverbial bow no wonder he was considered preeminent.)

Balthazar, 12 litres, is undoubtedly the Biblical king or Magi associated with the nativity. He is held to be the King of Arabia and the one who brought the gift of myrrh. His name is ultimately from the Babylonian Balat-shar-usur or 'save the life of the king' - oddly symbolic of the future death of the infant Christ. (This rather reminiscent of Sleeping Beauty.)

Nebuchadnezzar, 15 litres, keeps us in Babylon where the native tongue spoke of Nabu-kudurri-usur or 'Nabu, protect my first-born son'. The same question occurred to me and I discovered Nabu, son of the god Marduk, was the deity of wisdom. (Perhaps he should be remembered for a quote such as 'don't drink the whole bottle'.)

Solomon, 18 litres, is another associated with wisdom, althogh his name comes from the Hebrew shelomo meaning 'peaceful' and related to shalom.

Sovereign, 26.25 litres, is a later term and of much later etymology. First seen in English in the 14th century, it comes from Old French soverain and Latin superanus 'chief, principal'. Whomsoever came up with this did not look into the origins of the word as it is not the largest. (And no, not going near that Latin word or its meaning.)

Primat, 27 litres, is another Biblical name although we would know the character better as 'Goliath'. 'Primat' comes from Latin primus 'first', and while 'Goliath' is today a synonym for large size, it actually only refers to a person from Gath, one of the five city states of the Philistines. 'Gath', sometimes as 'Geth', was once a common place name in the Middle East. The origins of the name are not overly clear but, for obvious reasons, we shall opt for the most popularly quoted meaning of 'wine press'. Goliath maybe, but still not the largest.

Melchizedek, 30 litres, is another Biblical figure, this king of Salem and a priest of El Elyon mentioned in Genesis. His name comes from the Hebrew Malki-tzedeq and literally describes 'the king of righteousness'. (Perhaps not the best choice for something which is going to be extremely difficult to pour, never mind drink. Here the volume of liquid alone is going to tip the scales at almost 60 pounds - and the glass bottle will add considerably to this.)

It should be noted how, the method of fermentation being in the bottle, means only the standard bottle and the magnum see champagne produced in the correct way. Furthermore the latter is considered of superior quality, as there is less oxygen in the bottle, and the volume to surface area favours the creation of appropriately sized bubbles. However, there is no hard evidence for this view. Other bottle sizes are generally filled with champagne fermented in standard bottles or magnums.

It seems that exercise, while interesting, will never prove a useful memory aid. However I did find a mnemonic listing the seven most popularly-named bottle sizes and using the initial of each in ascending size order with: "My Judy Really Makes Splendid Belching Noises". Hardly the most memorable mnemonic - except perhaps for Judy.

Note sizes larger than the Jeroboam are rare and some of the larger sizes are not universally acknowledged.

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