When size does matter: Big bottles protect your cellared investments


 It’s hard not to giggle when someone pours you a glass of wine from a bottle four times its regular size. It’s like the person should be wearing clown shoes and an oversized bow tie. But when Geoff Macilwaine, manager of Wine Warehouse, hosted a party to honor an aisle-bound employee last weekend, he expertly poured a Jéroboam of La Cappuccina Soave 2009 wearing no such costume. The 3 liter bottle that serves 20 was big—comically so —but I managed to keep it together.

How big is your bottle?
Magnum – 2 bottles of wine
Rehoboam – 6 bottles of wine
Methuselah – 8 bottles of wine
Salmanazer – 12 bottles of wine
Balthazar – 16 bottles of wine
Nebuchadnezzar – 20 bottles of wine
Melchior – 24 bottles of wine

The smallest of the large format bottles is the Magnum and at 1.5 liters (or double the size of the standard 750ml bottle), it’s the only one not named after a biblical king. The reason behind these names is varied and uncertain. Common theories are that they speak to the worth, splendor and age of the bottles. A Methuselah, for instance, is equal to eight standard bottles and the patriarch by the same name lived until he was 969. To confuse matters, the names and corresponding volumes for large format Bordeaux bottles are different than those from Burgundy, Rhône and Champagne, but it’s the latter classification that’s been adopted by most other regions.

The purpose of large formats is twofold. The first concerns aging potential. The air captured in the neck of a bottle allows a welcome exchange of oxygen through the slightly porous cork, which matures the wine and renders it more expressive over time. In larger bottles, there’s a proportionately smaller amount of air to the volume of wine (up to 20 times smaller in the gargantuan Melchior) meaning that your valuable wine will mature more slowly, staying in excellent condition for longer.

The second reason is purely social. “They’re great for parties,” said Pamela Margaux, wine importer and fellow party guest. Bubbly is her specialty (she’s married to sparkling wine maestro Claude Thibaut) and loves starting parties with magnums of it. Big bottles ensure that every guest will get a taste and have an identical experience since they are all drinking from the same bottle of wine.

And for the wine-loving lady or gent who has everything? The Antique Wine Company specializes in large format bottles and sells a grand decanting cradle, a contraption that enables the bottle to be gradually tilted from vertical to horizontal as the wine is decanted, ensuring that no sediment (see Winespeak 101) contaminates the wine. There’s even a candlestick holder positioned under where the bottleneck ends up for a candlelit view. I do love the festivity of big bottles, but I’d have to laugh if someone ever wheeled out one of those —even without the clown outfit.

Vine Line: Fall Edition
With this year’s harvest—one of the most problematic in a decade—in the tank (or barrel), I asked John Kiers of Ox-Eye Vineyards what the rest of his fall has in store:
“Post-harvest, I always spend time reflecting on what went wrong and what went right. I will review yield in different parts of the vineyard and think about altering pruning (which I start end of December) to increase or decrease yields. I’ll also conduct soil samples to determine which micronutrients I’ll put down in November. After the first hard freeze, I’ll mow the alleyways to clean things up a bit. In the winery all of the heavy dirty work is done. In the tanks, I am monitoring temperatures and filling the head space with CO2 every three days. The whites also get a good dose of sulfur to help against bacteria. The reds are being moved to barrel and then inoculated for malolactic fermentation. The amount of oak input per variety depends on each wine’s body, color intensity and flavors. This is also a period of significant nail biting as I try to gauge my very young wines and how they are evolving. I am on guard for bizarre aromas and excessive haziness. So far I am pleased and feel like I have dodged most of Mother Nature’s wrath this year.”

Winespeak 101

Sediment (n.): The color and tannin molecules that form longer and longer molecule chains
over time until they are so heavy that they drop out of the once-suspended solution.