How big is your bottle?
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The other night I put on my favourite Alexander McQueen dress and went to an old-school black-tie party amid the gold-leaf splendour of Spencer House, an 18th-century aristocratic palace in St James’s. The guests wore kilts and glittering evening gowns; the tables groaned with silver and flowers. We were piped into dinner and served cognac in the drawing room after the speeches. The event marked the launch of Bollinger RD 2008, the pinnacle of the Bollinger range, which is aged for roughly twice as long on the lees as “regular” vintage Bollinger, for extra complexity. Opportunities to taste Bollinger RD (whose initials stands for “recently disgorged”) are few and far between – but it was even more unusual in this instance to taste it from a 75cl bottle, 1.5-litre magnum and three-litre jeroboam.
This was a bit of show-boating on Bollinger’s part, but the size of the bottle can dramatically affect the way a champagne ages. “Time doesn’t flow the same way in a bottle, magnum or jeroboam,” says Bollinger chef de cave Denis Bunner. “The taste is really different depending on the size of the bottle. This is due to the fact that the gas exchanges are modified.”
A magnum is twice the size of a 75cl bottle, but its neck, which always contains a little oxygen, is the same diameter; this means the oxygen-to-champagne ratio in a magnum is much lower than in a bottle. In the lower-oxygen environment, the champagne matures at a more stately pace. And, rather like a tomato sauce or a slow-cooked leg of lamb, it tends to taste better and more integrated the more gradually it ages.
The difference between the three formats was striking. The 75cl bottle was by far the most evolved – its zesty citrus characters countered by more “tertiary” aromas of savoury Marmite and grilled hazelnuts. The jeroboam and magnum, by contrast, were much more youthful, taut and bright. They would need more cellaring time but, ultimately, it would be worth the wait.
“When it comes to cellaring prestige cuvées, large formats make a huge, huge difference,” says Nick Baker, founder of The Finest Bubble, a London champagne merchant that has hosted some extraordinary comparative tastings of large formats over the years. Long-term, he says, “jeroboams in particular really emphasise that reductive element – they make the champagne much more smoky. Because the lees are spread over a larger surface area, you also get a softer, creamier texture. Beyond jeroboam there doesn’t seem to be so much difference.”
Non-vintage champagnes in larger formats can also be great, he adds, if you want to make a splash. “Charles Heidsieck NV is good in jeroboam – ideally the fruit-forward 2014 base. The oft-overlooked Piper Heidsieck in jeroboam is also amazing. And the Roederer Collection 241 [base 2016] is just glorious right now.”
But big bottles aren’t just a champagne thing – they’re increasingly in demand for still wine too, according to Brett Fleming, MD of fine wine merchant Armit Wines. “On recognised vintages there is a tendency to ‘go large’,” he says. “Ageing the wines is part of this… but also, frankly, it’s because they look fantastic at a dinner party.”
Some of the most collectable large formats in still wine are those from the Vendemmia d’Artista project by super-Tuscan Ornellaia, which features works by a different artist each year. The newly released 2020 vintage has been interpreted by the conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth, in a series of works that riff on the etymology of the word “vino”. The 75cl bottles have a quote from Vitruvius; 100 double magnums show an etymological tree; 10 one-of-a-kind six-litre Impérials (or methuselahs in champagne speak) are etched with Vitruvius’s quotation translated into one of 10 languages. Kosuth has also created a unique work for a single nine-litre salmanazar. (Some of the larger bottles will go under the hammer online via Sotheby’s in September, to raise money for the Guggenheim Museum’s Mind’s Eye programme, which helps blind and vision-impaired people to access art.)
At London’s hedonistic Bob Bob Ricard City restaurant, more than a third of the wine list is magnum or larger. “But we cap the mark-up on fine wine at £75 per 75cl, however expensive it is for us to purchase,” explains head of wines Giacomo Recchia. “This makes our large formats offer very competitive.” Big bottles include methuselahs of Cristal and Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, Impérials of Latour and Mouton Rothschild; magnums of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and Louis Jadot by the double magnum. Recchia pours these monsters using a VCanter decanting cradle, a crane-like contraption hand-made in Lucerne (from $3,100, vcanter.com).
Nick Baker, however, prefers to do the heavy lifting himself: “Jeroboams are just about do-able. Methuselahs are a bit more of a challenge. Plant your feet wide apart. Take it nice and slow. And make sure no one moves their glass unexpectedly, otherwise you’ve had it.”