Mostly when we think of wine, we think of a bottle holding 75ml, made of glass, with a natural cork. It’s the standard format and one which has been with us for centuries. In fact, this size was only adopted in the US in 1979; prior to that the “standard” in the Sates was 1/5th gallon, 757ml.
In my daily travels and wine tours I sometimes come across half bottles – a Demi, 375ml – mostly in motorway service stations and airplanes. Sweet wines, which may be drunk less often and in smaller quantities, are generally offered in 500ml bottles. In larger sizes I regularly buy Magnums of 1.5L and of course, wine boxes of 2L, 3L, 5L or 10L.
Many large bottle sizes, with delightful Biblical names and volumes of 3 – 30L, are still available in Champagne but also sometimes found in Burgundy and Bordeaux.
One reason people love large-format wine bottles is that they look so impressive on the table. If you have a few guests for dinner you are likely to open a couple of bottles, but a single magnum impresses more! Good looks are merely a happy side effect of these super-sized wines’ real advantage however: they also allow the wines inside to age more slowly.
For most of wine’s long history, aging wasn’t an issue. Wine was consumed young and this is still the case for many – perhaps most – of the wines we drink today. Cylindrical wine bottles with cork stoppers did not become commonplace until the end of the 18th century. Among their many advantages was the fact that they allowed wines to be laid down—literally—for aging, with the wine inside keeping the cork moist and the seal tight.
The origins of the magnum, which holds twice as much as a standard 750-ml bottle, is disputed, but magnums soon came to be prized by collectors because of their superior aging qualities. In fact, thanks to their aging advantage, as well as their relative rarity, magnums of older outstanding vintages often sell for far more than double the price of standard bottles at auction. “Length of life, speed of maturity, and level of ultimate quality are all in direct proportion to bottle size,” writes wine authority Hugh Johnson.
A key virtue of any of these larger bottles for ageable red wines is that they offer better defences against some of time’s less positive effects. For example, exposure to air will eventually oxidize wine, causing losses of colour and flavour. The larger the bottle, the smaller the surface-to-volume ratio, because less of the wine is exposed to the small amount of air within the bottle. It therefore keeps better.
In addition, wine in a large-format bottle is cushioned from the outside environment by its own volume. The thermal mass of the larger bottle means that it is relatively better protected against small temperature fluctuations, vibrations, and other disturbances. Of course, even a large-format bottle must be stored under proper conditions, away from light and vibration, with constant temperatures in the 13-18°C (55-to 65F) range. Within that range, the cooler the wine, the more slowly aging will occur and natural cave cellars in the Loire Valley are generally 11°C all year round.
But when conditions are right, larger bottles are an ideal way to allow age-worthy wines to reach their full potential. Our own cellar, built in the 16th century, currently contains storage racks for around 1300 bottles and we are gradually accumulating a selection of magnums down there – few from Bordeaux, from Rioja in Spain, down in the Rhone and the south of France and several sparkling wines.
This format was an Australian invention from back in the 1960’s when their main market was for cheap wine sold to unsophisticated clients. It involves putting wine into a heavy plastic bag contained in a cardboard protective box. The advantages of this system are many, with low packaging cost and subsequently lower retail cost, being a major factor.
The primary benefit that bag-in-box packaging offers to consumers, apart from cost, is that it prevents oxidation of the wine during dispensing. After opening, wine in a bottle is oxidised by the air which has displaced the wine poured. Wine in a bag is not touched by air and thus not subject to oxidation until it is dispensed. It is not subject to cork taint or spoilage due to slow consumption and can stay fresh for weeks after opening. This makes it ideal for the drinker of the occasional glass.
Despite having an image problem, especially in the US where it is synonymous with the cheapest of cheap wines, serious winemakers around the world are increasingly packaging this way. We have tasted a number of Bag-in-Box wines since our arrival in France and now have a list of many we are very happy to drink. I am sorry if this horrifies some of you!
The best we have discovered offered in this format are rosé and white wines, but one or two easy-drinking reds are also to be found on the Elliott kitchen shelf on occasions. In that perhaps 80% of wines bought are consumed within a week or two, expensive bottles and corks serve little purpose.
Some wine makers do put inferior wines in their boxes, but others do not, offering a great bargain to purchasers of bulk wine. The only way to find out is to talk to the producer and taste his wine and we have been valiantly doing this research for several years.