Bigger really is better.
Especially when it comes to wine.
Bigger wine bottles – or large format, as the insiders call them -- are just better for your wine.
They protect your wine from the things that can damage it – like light, heat, drastic changes in temperature or vibrations from travel.
The bigger bottles have thicker glass than regular-sized bottles, says Raimondo Boggia, managing partner of Obica Mozzarella Bar, Pizze e Cucina, whose Flatiron location just started a large format program.
So that means more protection.
More importantly, “the larger bottles allow the wine to age more slowly and gracefully,” says Joe Campanale, executive beverage director/co-founder of Epicurean Group.
That’s because the larger volume of wine has a smaller surface area to the cork.
Remember, corks are porous, so they let oxygen in, albeit very slowly. Oxygen modifies the wine over time. While it helps the wine to age, too much oxygen can damage the wine. But one cork to way more wine means less oxygen and risk of damage.
Boccia did his own little case study with 1997 Brunellos. (That wine has been in the bottle for 18 years, in case you don’t have your calculator.) He tasted the same wine in a large bottle, a regular size and a half bottle.
The wine in the bigger bottle tasted good, and even could have stayed in the bottle and aged a little longer. The wine in the standard-size bottle had to be drunk today or it would have turned bad. The wine in the half bottle was just no good.
A Study in Size and the Biblical Kings
There actually are tons of different wine bottle sizes and for some reason, the big ones are named after biblical kings. No one really knows why. But here’s a quick list.
187.5 ml: Piccolo or Split
It’s a quarter bottle, typically used for a single serving of Champagne.
375 ml: Demi or Half
Holds one-half of the standard size.
This is your standard size, the most common bottle size for most distributed wine, about 25 ounces of wine. So if you pour a 5 oz. glass of wine, you’ll get about five glasses from this bottle.
Now you can start doing some math.
1.5 L Magnum
Two standard 750 ml bottles.
3.0 L Double Magnum
Two Magnums or four standard 750 ml bottles. (That’s about 20 glasses of wine if you’re adding with me.)
And here’s where the Biblical guys come in.
4.5 L Jeroboam, aka The King of Kings
Six standard 750 ml bottles.
6.0 L Imperial
Eight standard 750 ml bottles. (That’s about 40 glasses of wine but if you have 10 people for dinner, you can see how you easily can empty that.)
And they get bigger.
9.0 L Salmanazar
Named after an Assyrian King, this is 12 standard 750 ml bottles. That’s a full case of wine in one big ol' bottle.
12.0 L Balthazar
Named after one of the three kings who first met Jesus, there are 16 standard 750 ml bottles in that baby.
15.0 L Nebuchadnezzar
Also known as the King of Babylon, this is the equivalent of 20 standard 750 ml bottles. So – quick -- how many glasses? 100!!
There are actually even more crazy sizes out there. Champagne, for instance, has a bottle dubbed the “Winston Churchill.”
Supposedly champagne producer Pol Roger created a 20-ounce bottle especially for Churchill. Seems Sir Winston thought 20 oz. was the perfect amount of champagne to have every morning around 11 AM.
Although maybe he should have had it a little earlier. Then he wouldn’t have been infamously associated with saying: “I may be drunk, Miss, but in the morning I will be sober and you will still be ugly.”
Now if the champagne came at 8 AM maybe it would have helped things.
Should You Order a Larger Bottle in a Restaurant?
So while more and more restaurants are offering larger format bottles, they do tend to be a bit more money.
The cost on a large format is greater than the cost of the equal amount of 750mls. “For instance, if a 750ml costs $20, the magnum (2 bottles) will probably cost us $50,” says Campanale, who does half-priced magnums after midnight at his restaurant Anfora in New York City.
But talk to your sommelier. If you know you are going to be ordering a few bottles anyway, it is worth a conversation. If the price differential on the larger format is minimal, you can almost guarantee that the wine is going to taste better. So if you’re looking to impress clients or your future your in-laws, it just might be worth it.
And people are starting to understand that quality angle, says Boccia, who sees sales of large formats slowly increasing at his restaurant.
Should You Buy a Large Format Bottle as an Investment?
Not only do they age better, but there are fewer large-format bottles produced, hence the higher price point. Most vineyards bottle their wine in what they can sell – and the consumer tends to want the standard format.
You’re basically talking about supply and demand, so it's no surprise the larger formats tend to appreciate more.
Just two that we can think of:
1. You bring a big fancy bottle to a party, ceremoniously open it and the wine is bad. That would suck.
2. The other big problem is storage, says Boccia. Large-format bottles often don’t fit in a normal temperature-controlled wine refrigerator. And if you have a cellar with some sort of racking system, unless you specifically asked for it, odds are good you don’t have racks for the big guys.
So consider a larger format then next time you are buying wine.
Winston Churchill also once said, “What is adequacy? Adequacy is no standard at all.”
So do what the man says. Go big or go home.