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A matter of size

It was not until the early 18th century that glass bottles became more widely used and somewhat standardised

Alok Chandra 

Alok Chandra

Ever wondered why your standard wine or spirit bottle contains 750 ml, and not, say, 500 ml or a litre?

Glass-blowing has been around since the times of the Roman Empire (first century CE), but, since glass was terribly expensive, the Romans - and the Greeks before them - used amphorae to store and transport their wines. These terrecota containers varied in size from 12 inches to 5 feet and could store anything between 1 and 50 litres.

It was not until the early 18th century that glass bottles became more widely used and somewhat standardised: the walls of bottles grew thinner as coal-fired furnaces produced higher temperatures and stronger glass. The bottle itself went from being round to long, which allowed it to be laid on its side - which made it easier for wines to be matured for any length of time and to be packed into cases for transport.

But why the 750 ml bottle size? Apparently, the "lung capacity" of glass blowers - in those days, all bottles were made by hand - was between 600 ml and 800 ml. For a long time, most glass bottles tended to be 700 or 750 ml. Sometime, towards the end of the 18th century, the size of the Port bottle in Britain was standardised to 750 ml - the rest, as they say, is history.

The greatest variety in terms of size could be seen in Champagne bottles: a magnum containing 1.5 litres (two bottles) is fairly widely known - India's leading wine producer Sula offers a magnum of Sula Brut for Rs 1,875 in Bengaluru.

All large bottles have Biblical references: the Jaroboam (four bottles; three litres) is named after a king, while the next-biggest, Methuelah (eight bottles; six litres), is named after the oldest man in the Bible. From here on, things get esoteric: the Salamanzar (12 bottles; nine litres) is named after kings of ancient Assyria; the Balthazar (16 bottles; 12 litres) was an angel of heaven; and the grand-daddy of all, the Nebuchadnazzar (20 bottles; 15 litres) was an ancient king of Babylon.

Little is known about who decided on naming larger bottles as such, and when. But the answer would be interesting - perhaps we might find the hand of Freemasons or some such wine guild. Interestingly, the oldest-known wine-related brotherhood, the Antico Confrarie Sant-Andiu de la Galineiro of France, goes back to 1140 CE.

Most still wines are sold in regular bottles, with a few premium wines in magnums. Krsma Estates is still the only Indian winery that is believed to offer a magnum still wine; its Cabernet Sauvignon is priced Rs 3,250 in Bengaluru.

The terminology for spirits in India is completely different: regular (750 ml) bottles are called quarts, half-bottles (375 ml) are called pints, and the smallest (180 ml) are called nips - for reasons that have never been clear to me. Interestingly, nips account for some 60 per cent of all liquor sales in India.

Wines I've been drinking
An aptly named and largely not-available Brancaia Xmas 2010, a blend of 80 per cent Sangiovese, 10 per cent Merlot, and 10 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon from Tuscany, Italy. The wine had a terrific and complex aroma of berries, flowers and spices. On the palate, it was dry and medium-bodied, with soft tannins and a nice long finish - a terrific wine, also sold as the Brancaia TRE for Rs 2,965 in Bengaluru.

Merry Christmas!

Alok Chandra is a Bengaluru-based wine consultant

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First Published: Sat, December 12 2015. 00:07 IST