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Format Fetish - Sizing Wine Up

They say that the first stage in treating addiction is acknowledgement. Well, here goes: I am an addict!

Now, you won’t find me meeting strangers in a dark corner of a pub to get my fix or walking around babbling incoherently to myself, well…. at least not before 9pm on a Friday night; cue nervous laughter.

No, my fix comes from cellar doors, auctions and sometimes a nice chap from a transport company who delivers my candy.

In short, I am addicted to searching out and buying big bottles of wine. Mostly magnums, the odd Jeroboam here and there, and I’m pretty sure there is an imperial or two stashed somewhere.

It’s a odd obsession: you search for something that exists in very small numbers but the same thing can be accessed easily in another format and at half the price? You have to wait twice as long before they get to the optimum drinking window, they don’t really fit into the fridge or cellar properly and they are heavy - making transporting them a pain in the you know where..

But, for me at least, the allure of wine in a bigger bottle is a powerful thing.

The strongest reason for embracing bigger glass is aging; magnums are widely acknowledged as the optimum format for aging wine due to the higher ratio of liquid to oxygen. That is, double the amount of wine contained in a magnum compared to a similar amount of oxygen contained between the neck and the cork of a standard 750ml bottle.

In practical terms, assuming the wine has been stored correctly (more on that later) the wine ages much slower. As an experiment I opened up a bottle of 1999 Houghton Jack Mann Cabernet Malbec alongside a magnum of the same wine.

Both came from the same cellar at auction, had been stored in the same conditions for the same amount of time, were decanted and left to breathe for one hour.

The bottle tasted magnificent. It was soft, layered, long and complex. It had just the right amount of age and was definitely in its sweet spot. The magnum however was so youthful it felt like a waste; opened before the wine had its chance to reach its potential.

Luckily it was a dinner party and we reveled in the bottle whilst giving the magnum more time to open. But, even after a few hours the wine remained tight, condensed and was not as enjoyable as the bottle.

The discussion eventually turned to enjoyment potential and we all agreed that the magnum, due to its slower, gentler aging offered more potential for a better showing of the wine. The only downside being that you wait twice as long to find out.

Great wine will always taste great, but when you taste great wine before it has had time to develop and show its true colors, you are often left feeling short. Even more so if you have spent good money on that bottle but have not let the asset mature to its full potential.

Another reason fueling my addition is the Magnums’ suitability for dinner parties. There are about 5 and a bit glasses in a bottle and when you double that you have a civil amount of wine for 4 (2 and a ½ glasses each) over dinner.

Another part to this equation is the impression a magnum has on a people you are sharing your wine with. Rocking up with a big format bottle implies that you take your wine seriously and that the company you share your wine with is valued.

Then there’s the reaction you get when you arrive at your friends house and grunt with effort as you lift the mega bottle of wine onto the kitchen table. It’s impressive and can often become a pleasant topic of conversation that you can always steer toward yourself and how cool you are….

Then there’s the quality aspect of the big format. Most wine makers will not put normal wine into big format; it’s not cool to make a big deal of something that does not reflect your best work. So when you buy a magnum you know that it’s a special wine or has a special story attached to it.

Scarcity. Magnums generally have to be bottled by hand and this dictates that few are made making them special and in investment terms, something that stands out.

When buying in big format, storage must be a consideration. The wine needs to be at the stored between a constant 12°-18°, be sheltered from direct light and have a dry (but not too dry!) constant humidity of between 60% - 70%.

Now I have two Liebherr wine cellars that do this for me perfectly but you have to rearrange the shelves to make multi magnum storage efficient. Don’t expect that you can store your magnums as neatly as your standard bottles, the difference in bottle shapes, and boxes will mean you have to dedicate way more space.

Despite all the extra considerations it is very much worth it! If you have the patience to wait until a big format bottle is in its sweet spot, you will be rewarded with a drinking experience that you will not soon forget.

My last moment like this was when I opened 2 magnums of Lakes Folly with some wine making friends. One was 1992 and one was 1996. By the end of it we were all in raptures as to the quality and condition of these wines.

In fact talking about that experience has led me on a chase to find some more..
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Visit Selector Magazine for more inspirational food and wine stories.

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