When size matters
Author: Peter Newton
Sizing up (so to speak) the relative merits of different bottle dimensions should ideally be done via practical experimentation, but financial and constitutional restrictions would make this a painful experience for the former and, if you consider an unfinished bottle a crime, downright impossible for the latter. Step forth your friendly wine merchant to help; whether you think that the best things come in small packages or bigger is always better, here is a little guide to help “big up” your knowledge of bottle size.
If it is the little things in life that make you happy then there are a few handy-sized bottles that will keep you content should you be able to find them, but the most common starting point is the quarter-bottle, used predominantly in Champagne. This is perfect for a personal celebration, comfortably fitting in one’s suitcase or handbag but alas, only adequate for drinking alone – gone in a sniff and a gulp. For a touch more enjoyment and where we, as advisors, start to come in, the half-bottle, or demi-bouteille, is a format found in almost all wine regions and many world-class wines will start at this level. These are a great way to access some expensive wines without over-spending but, be warned, these do not age as gracefully as larger formats and will reach their peak much quicker. Ideally, they should be considered for wines that require little or no ageing at all.
How a wine ages is complicated by many factors – the grape variety, the vineyard, vineyard management, the quality of the vintage, the winemaking process, corks, storage and bottle size. The cork is not air-tight and is designed to let in small amounts of oxygen over a long period of time, helping a wine to develop favourably in bottle. If too much oxygen gets in, however, the wine will age too fast and lose its fruit before it is fully integrated and those youthful edges are rounded out. That is why small bottles are not ideal for wines that need time. The surface area of liquid in a small bottle is greater as a percentage of the whole compared to larger-sized bottles and therefore more oxygen gets to the wine.
The standard-sized 75cl bottle is where real ageing, if needed, can be achieved and where a greater appreciation of the contents can be obtained. Depending on the size of one’s glass and how thirsty or generous you are feeling, you should be able to eke out five to six glasses without problem. Sufficient quantity to allow sharing with a friend (well, for most of us, at least).
Ask any winemaker, wine merchant or wine aficionado what the ideal bottle size is however and the answer will almost certainly be a magnum (1.5 litres, equivalent to two standard bottles). This is universally recognised as the ideal format for ageing wine, enabling a long slow maturation, provided the bottle is stored correctly of course. It may perhaps be pushing it a little to open a magnum at lunchtime, but – between two – it can certainly be polished off by dinner, and even allows for an appreciation of its development with the hours of aeration through to the evening. We are not all created equal though, so you may instead choose to adhere to Sir Winston Churchill’s notion that “a magnum is the perfect size for two gentlemen to share over lunch, especially if one of them is not drinking”.
Beyond magnums we start getting into royally big bottles. Quite literally. A Jeroboam (three litres in Champagne and Burgundy, 4.5 litres in Bordeaux – I know, confusing) is named after the biblical first king of the northern Kingdom of Israel. A Rehoboam (4.5 litres in Champagne and Burgundy – even more confusing!) was the fourth king of Israel and first king of Judea. A Salmanazah (nine litres, or the equivalent of a 12-bottle case) was an Assyrian king. The list goes on, with even two of the Three Wise Men who brought gifts to Jesus accounted for in Balthazar (12 litres) and Melchior (18 litres). Why poor Gaspar, the third of the Wise Men is not included is not clear, so perhaps there is scope for an even larger bottle in time. It is thought however, that at least some of the names do have a semblance of relevance to the bottle sizes they relate to, with perhaps Methuselah (six litres in Champagne and Burgundy) being the most obvious, as he is reported to have lived to the ripe old age of 969 which is similar to the life expectancy of a wine bottled in such a format.
There are many other formats not mentioned here so if you subscribe to the mantra that big is beautiful, you will need to do your research before buying, especially as some of the bottle sizes vary between regions, despite having the same names.
The future of bottle formats is also set for change, in the UK at least, with Brexit on the now not-too-distant horizon. Way back in 1874 the French Champagne house of Pol Roger introduced the imperial pint (56.8cl) which held approximately four glasses and became Sir Winston Churchill’s favourite bottle size. It was banned by Brussels in 1973 when we joined the European Union but is now set for a possible comeback. Hubert de Billy of Pol Roger, whose family were friends with the Churchills recently remarked on Sir Winston’s preference, “when he was drinking a (75cl) bottle, she (his wife, Clementine) was not happy; when he was drinking a half bottle, he was not happy”: an imperial pint was therefore ideal.
Our very own previous Chairman Simon Berry has long tried to persuade the French Champagne makers to sell their wines in pint measures but was told he would be breaking the law. In his words, “now that we are no longer beholden to Brussels”, we can “drink our Champagne from God’s own bottle size”.
Needless to say, each bottle size has its place; our preference is on the table, opened and ready to drink.
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