Is bigger better when it comes to wine bottles?
Well, that depends upon what is inside them. Yellow Tail is Yellow Tail is Yellow Tail, whether it is in a standard 750 milliliter bottle or what’s called a magnum, a 1.5 liter bottle –– which is equivalent to two standard bottles, or eight glasses.
Those “lower shelf” inexpensive wines often double up to give consumers a sense of supersizing, and you might get a bit more value and convenience in purchasing a magnum.
But more often than not, the really good stuff — and this goes for whites and sparkling, but most often reds — ends up in a large-format bottle because the winemaker is proud of how a vintage turned out, or there is a special occasion for the winery or the customer.
One of my favorite California wineries in the Sierra Foothills AVA near Sacramento is Madrona. When I lived near there, every fall I would make it a point to check out their library wine sale because they offered magnum-size bottles of their tasty red blends and varietals. Opening up a magnum for guests on special occasions — or giving them as gifts — is an enduring habit.
There are plenty of opinions about whether aging wines in larger than standard bottles is better: Some say the process goes faster, maybe even slower. But nobody denies how impressive it is to present and uncork a prized vintage in a magnum or double-magnum (four bottles) size.
That’s why collectors and high-end restaurants feature some big bottles. Don’t be surprised if a magnum of a really nice bottle costs you more than two separate bottles — that’s just the way it works. That’s because they are a show unto themselves and most often contain some of the better wines to be found in a region.
Ryan Robinson, a certified sommelier at Ruth’s Chris Steak House in Boise, enjoys working with his large-format bottle inventory, priced $80 to $290: Gachot-Monot, Cotes de Nuits-Villages, Burgundy, France, 2013, 1.5L; Clos La Coutale, Cahors, Southwest, France, 2011, 1.5L; Damilano, Barolo, “Cannubi,” Piedmont, Italy, 2008, 1.5L; Damilano, Barolo, “Cannubi,” Piedmont, Italy, 2009, 1.5L; Orin Swift, “Papillon,” Napa Valley, California, 2012, 1.5L; Orin Swift, “Abstract,” California, 2012, 1.5L; Dunham, Red Blend, “Trutina,” Columbia Valley, Washington, 2012, 3L. (They also carry a Telaya, Red Blend, “Sruth,” Idaho/Washington, 2013, 1.5 L)
“I get pretty excited over large-format wines,” Robinson says. “We feature a weekly wine class for our staff and often involve large format education.”
Robinson — fresh from participating as one of three national finalists at the “Somms Under Fire” competition in Austin, Tex. — was recently asked to catalog an inventory for an upcoming auction by the Kif Brown Foundation on March 19. Large-format wines will be among the attractions for this event, which raises money to provide guidance for recently diagnosed cancer patients.
“There are some really amazing, well-aged large-format wines that will be featured here in Boise,” Robinson promises.
Not everybody in Idaho or elsewhere chooses to use the large-format bottles. Those who do have their reasons.
“We chose magnums based on the concept that we will have a lot of patio people this summer and wanted to be able to offer an option of having a few glasses of wine with friends sitting on the patio,” said Earl Sullivan of Idaho’s Telaya winery. “It is essentially two glasses for four people, so two couples can come in and enjoy. We also do it because trade (business or restaurant customers) like it for banquets. We also do a lot of custom-etched magnums and double magnums for collectors, but that is on a case by case basis.”
If you would like to go big, I suggest you pay a visit to the Boise Co-op Wine Shop, 15 N. 8th St., Boise. But I have also stumbled on to some good magnum stock at Costco stores and Cost Plus World Market, 1157 N. Milwaukee St., Boise. At Cost Plus I picked up magnums of 2013 vintages of a Raymond Merlot (Napa) and a Buena Vista Pinot Noir (Napa/Carneros) for under $30 each. That’s some pretty fine wine for the equivalent of $10 to $15 per standard bottle. Plus, I get to uncork one of those large beauties for my guests — or pass them along as gifts at the next wedding or party I attend.
Large wine bottles range from a Split (about one glass) to an 18L size called a Melchior (96 glasses). In the language of wine, once you get past a double magnum (16 glasses) they are all named after ancient kings — king-size, for sure.