Bigger Is Better in Wine

Wine Tributaries
by Tim Hayes & John Koetzner

††††† †††† In the United States we often think bigger is better - houses, cars, NFL linemen - and in the case of wine, itís pretty much true. Wines tend to have a greater shelf life if they are in larger bottles. But why should that be true?

†††† Bottle aging, which is anaerobic (oxygen-free), is one of the reasons that people put wine in a cellar and let it age. It continues to develop and mature, allowing the complexities of wine to assemble, and in the long run make wine consumption much more pleasant.

†††† When you go to a restaurant, you probably notice that the sommelier or waiter will present the bottle to your prior to opening it. Not only is it done to confirm that the proper wine is about to be opened, but it is meant for you to inspect the fill level. A high fill level means less oxygen and the potential for a good wine that will show less signs of oxidation. A wine that has a low fill, at the bottom of the neck, may be of questionable quality. Definitely suspect is a wine that is filled only to the shoulders in the bottle.

†††† That space between the wine and the cork is called ullage. As wines go through the aging process, the ullage has a direct impact on the aging potential for a wine. Thatís why a larger bottle has better aging potential; the wine has less surface area contact to the ullage than it does in a smaller bottle.

†††† While a split bottle (375 milliliter) is convenient for two people to have a glass of wine, you will not usually find people collecting cases of split bottles. However, many wineries do use this size for bottling dessert wines and ports, and those wines often have a little longer longevity due to residual sweetness or fortification.

†††† Earlier in this decade, a new size bottle was accepted by the BATF, a half-liter bottle (500ml), but it was given a number of restrictions. For the most part it has been marketed in a similar way as the split bottle, typically for restaurants. Locally, Jordan Winery, Geyser Peak, and Pedroncelli Winery are a few of the wineries that have released wines in this bottle size.

†††† Standard wine bottles hold 750 milliliters of wine and they are used for red, white, rose, and sparkling wines. However, sparkling wine bottles appear to be larger than standard because they are made of thicker glass to withstand the pressures from the carbonation.

†††† The next size bottle typically used for wine is the magnum, equivalent to two standard bottles, and it holds 1.5 liters of wine. Following in size is the double magnum (called a Jeroboam for sparkling wine), and it holds three liters of wine or the equivalent to four standard bottles. Although they have different shapes, the Imperial and the Methuselah both hold six liters of wine, which would equal eight standard bottles.

†††† Wine collectors, those folks who show up at wine auctions and charity functions where special wine lots are put up for bid, will often be the clientele for these larger sized bottles. They will even look for bigger bottles such as the Salmanazar (nine liters of wine or the equivalent to a case of wine), the Balthazar (twelve liters of wine or sixteen standard bottles), or the Nebuchadnezzar (which ranges from thirteen to fifteen liters depending on the country of the wineís origin). Recently, Au Bon Climat got $12,000.00 for a five liter Pinot Noir that was auctioned at charity event at a Sonoma-Cutrer event, which gives an idea of the serious collectorís tastes.

†††† While we know that bigger bottles let wine age more gracefully, it is obvious that not everyone can afford or has the space for larger bottles. Plus, purchasing wine should be based on the type of usage a person usually has, and the larger bottles usually signify something more akin to collecting.

†††† For our purposes, we find splits as a party for one, standard bottles as a party for two, a magnum as a party for four, and a double magnum as a dinner party. One can have a whole house party with an Imperial, a work party with the Balthazar, and a block party with a Nebuchadnezzar.

†††† Yes, size does make a difference. If you want optimum aging, bigger is better. Yet, bottle size should fit your purposes and your cellar.

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