What's That Big Bottle
By Don Clemens
The overwhelming majority of the world production of wine is sold in 750 ml bottles. However, in the United States, France (Champagne, Burgundy, Bordeaux and, to a lesser extent, other French regions), Germany, Italy, and some other countries, wineries may offer a small portion of a vintage (particularly, excellent ones) in non-standard sized bottles. These impressively larger bottles typically cost more than the equivalent amount of wine in 750 ml bottles. Is paying the premium worth it?
RANGE OF BOTTLE SIZES
Generally, wines sold in larger formats follow the established rules set up by the French, many decades ago. These “rules” were adopted and followed by vignerons in Burgundy, Champagne and generally in Bordeaux. With those regions’ prestige attaching to these “rules”, other regions and countries followed suit. The different formats of Burgundy and Champagne are laid out in the table below. (Bordeaux and other French regions sometimes use different names of large bottles in sizes greater than Magnum).
Most of the non-standard (i.e., larger than 750ml) bottles are named for notable figures from the Bible.
Piccolo means “small” in Italian.
Demi means “half” in French.
Magnum means “great” in Latin. 14.5” high
Jéroboam led a revolt against Rehoboam and as a result, became King of Israel. He was king when Rome was founded in 753 BC. His name means “he increases the people.” 19.5” high
Rehoboam was David’s grandson and Solomon’s son. He served as King of Israel and then Kingdom of Judah after the schism that formed the independent Kingdom of Israel. His name means “he who enlarges the people.” 20.5” high Methuselah lived 969 years which, according to the Bible, made him the oldest man to have ever lived. 22” high Salmanazar was one of five Assyrian kings named Salmanazar who were in power between the 13th and 8th centuries BC. Clearly, a very popular name… 24.5” high Balthazar was the last King of Babylon. His name means “king of treasures." 28” high
Nebuchadnezzar became King of Babylon in 604 BC and probably the most powerful of all the Babylonian kings. He was famous for building the Hanging Gardens, one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world. 31” tall and 83.5 lbs.
Solomon succeeded his father, David, as King of Israel and was most famous for his wisdom and building the Temple of Jerusalem. Melchior was another of the Magi.
Sovereign was created by Taittinger Champagne to christen the largest cruise ship in the world, the “Sovereign of the Seas.”
Primat / Goliath was the giant who lost his battle with David. 40” tall, 10” wide and 143 lbs.
Melchizedek was the King of Jerusalem and Midas, the King of Crete who had the golden touch.
Other wine bottle sizes include the 500 ml bottle, most commonly found with Spanish Sherry, German dessert wines, Portuguese Port and other sweet wines such as Hungarian Tokaji, and the 620 ml bottle used for the French Jura white, Vin Jaune.
DOES SIZE MATTER?
Large format bottles are prized by collectors because of their smaller air to wine ratios. With less air between the cork and wine, the wine oxidizes at a slower pace, which enables greater development of layers of flavor and aroma than in standard bottles. Wine experts contend that this longer maturation period results in better wine as well as longer life.
It is often said that the greatest enemy in aging wine is an abrupt, momentous change in its temperature. The large format bottles are less sensitive to temperature fluctuations because the glass is thicker, and the greater volume of wine takes longer to change temperature. Therefore, the large format bottles help protect the wines from temperature variation as they age which can, and usually does, extend their lives.
Larger format bottles of Champagne (larger than magnums] are mostly created for show. It is more difficult for Champagne to undergo its second fermentation bottles larger than magnums. Also, Champagne is not known to significantly benefit from long aging. Typically, large format Champagnes are produced on special request and are filled using wine poured from single 750 ml bottles prior to sale. Champagne bottles larger than Jéroboams are not often produced.
Because winemakers bottle only a small amount of wine in large format, these bottles are rare. Some bottles are special releases linked to a winery event (such as an anniversary) or are reserved for charity auctions. Collectors generally are willing to pay a premium for highly rated vintages and for those bottled in rare formats, and in combination, ever the more so.
And of course, a big part of the appeal of the large format bottles is the grand presentation. They unquestionably make a dramatic statement that speaks of the host's generosity and discernment.
Large format bottles are heavy; therefore, it is difficult to pour from them. For red wines, decanting is the best course of action. It helps to have strong friends around to help.
Large format bottles have larger diameter corks that can be more difficult to remove. Also, they are often stored upright in wine shops which may lead to the corks' drying out.
It is a bit tricky to chill large bottles of Champagne. Many are too large for ice buckets and most people don't have enough room in their refrigerators. Restaurants are usually equipped with walk-in refrigerators, so this is less of a problem for them.
The biggest issue is that large format bottles are more difficult to store; many wine refrigerators and storage bins or racks simply cannot accommodate them.
IS THE PREMIUM WORTH IT?
Yes, certainly! But arguably only for wines with long aging potential. The increased value of wine in a large format bottle is due to its longer maturation and life, its scarcity, and its impressively majestic appearance. These factors normally supersede the negative problems.