Sometimes, Bigger Really Is Better
Wednesday - January 31, 2007
Does size matter?
I’m talking about bottle size here. There is general agreement in the wine world that the bigger the bottle, the better the wine ages and the better it tastes. This should be read as the wine ages more slowly and because of that the wine will always seem more youthful than the same wine from a smaller bottle.
So why doesn’t everyone just bottle wine in larger bottles?
First, let’s talk about the different sizes of bottles. For Champagne and Burgundy bottles (the ones with no distinct shoulders but gradual widening as you follow it to its base), we start with the split (187ml), half bottle (375ml) and standard bottle (750ml). As we get progressively larger, the names become more interesting. A Magnum (1.5l) comes next in size, it even sounds bigger and more important. Next come a lineage of kings from the Old Testament of the Bible: Jeroboam (3l), Rehoboam (4.5l), Methuselah (6l), Salmanazar (9l), Balthazar (16l) and finally Nebuchadnezzar (15l). The names seem appropriate, as you can imagine each king enlarging his kingdom with each generation.
Now I don’t want to confuse you, but with Bordeaux bottles (the ones with the distinct shoulder and more cylindrical shape) the names are different. There is still the split, half bottle, standard bottle and Magnum. But next comes a Double Magnum (3l) then the Jeroboam which holds 4.5l, and finally an Imperiale (6l). Now that you know the different sizes, let’s talk about what’s going on inside. As you already know from reading my previous columns, there are all kinds of chemical reactions going on as the wine is aging properly inside a standard bottle of wine. Several of those reactions involve the air that is trapped in the bottle - that small bubble of air that is between the cork/cap and the wine as the wine is standing. As the bottle size gets bigger, the proportion of air to wine becomes much smaller. This means that the process of aging slows down in larger format bottles. So if you tried the same wine from a standard bottle and from a Magnum (all things being equal), the wine in the Magnum is surely to be more youthful, vibrant and quite simply better.
This is the very reason collectors and fanatics love to buy wines in larger format bottles. In addition most wineries in the world bottle a tiny fraction of their production in any bottle larger than 750ml. That is because the bottle itself is more expensive and the larger bottles must be filled by hand. Mechanized bottling lines that can bottle wine in Magnum bottles and larger are as elusive as Nessie herself. These big bottles are also more expensive to transport because of their weight and size.
So when you add up the additional costs of glass, labor, transport and rarity, these extravagant sizes can be very expensive propositions. On top of that, whenever you open one of these giants, you need someone strong enough just to pour the wine. And you’ll need more than just your date to drink it with - I would hope anyway. A Nebuchadnezzar with 15 liters of wine can serve a small army and weighs in at almost 84 pounds (38 kg)!
So for now, until the best wines are packaged in things other than glass bottles, the standard 750ml is the most practical size for sales and consumption. But if you are willing to pay the premium, there really is no better way to drink wine than out of Magnums.
In the end, size does matter. Magnums to buy: 1990 Krug Champagne ($500) If you are serious about Champagne, this may be one of the best ever. It approaches perfection.
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