Nothing attests to a host’s generosity — both in the financial and spiritual sense — than a large bottle at the table. There is something both deeply civilised and insouciantly grand about serving wine in large format. It speaks of connoisseurship and kindness, of laughter, debate and merriment.
Even the names are affecting: jeroboam, methuselah, salmanazar, nebuchadnezzar... ‘Margaux in melchior’ has a more romantic ring to it than ‘bottle’, no?
Large-format wines age more slowly
The benefits of the big bottle do not begin and end with upping your profile as a host. Most wine lovers understand that wines bottled in magnum or larger almost always show better than those in smaller formats, due to slower ageing, which prolongs a wine’s lifespan.
The reason is clearly visible: in every bottle of wine there is a small amount of oxygen between the cork and the wine, which is essential if the wine is intended to age and develop in bottle.
In larger bottles, the proportion of wine that is exposed to oxygen in the air is smaller, which leads to a slower oxidative journey for the wine.
Larger bottles can carry a huge premium, so opportunities to acquire at auction should certainly be taken
Oxidation is the process that allows a great wine to take on the complex secondary characteristics of interest to wine lovers. Within the lifespan of a bottle of wine, it has the potential to reach its peak and wine lovers generally want this process to last as long as it possibly can.
Even a good bottle of Mouton-Rothschild 1945 will now be showing a great deal of age, whereas a perfectly stored magnum or larger could still be fresh, structured and just approaching maturity, with many years ahead of it.
Large-format wines are harder to come by
In addition to presentation and lifespan, there is a third important factor to consider when looking at large bottles. It is almost always the case that larger bottles are scarcer than their 750ml brethren.
Every year when a property bottles its vintage, it bottles its large formats judiciously and, generally speaking, the rarity ramps up as the bottle gets bigger.
I would challenge anyone to find me a nebuchadnezzar of Lafite 1982 — if you can, I’ll bet it is transcendent. Depending on the wine, larger bottles can carry a huge premium, so opportunities to acquire at auction should certainly be taken.
Here are six of my top large-format lots offered at Christie’s that speak to the taste — and terminology — of these prodigious bottlings.
Petrus 1990 in double magnum
Petrus, Pomerol’s infamous upper-echelon star, is a prize for any collector’s cellar. The vibrant and vivid 1990 vintage that is touted for its inevitable ageing potential will last even longer out of double magnum. This already incredibly youthful Petrus will retain its magical properties for far longer than a standard bottle, ageing slowly for a few decades at least before it reaches its zenith.
Bollinger R.D. decl. 1965 in jeroboam
These three special jeroboams (each the equivalent of three litres of champagne) are a treasure trove for bubble lovers. They come from the cellar of Ben Ichinose, where they were impeccably stored after shipment from Bollinger following disgorgement in 1983.
These jeroboams of non-vintage Bollinger include grapes from the 1965 harvest, although 1965 was not a declared vintage. Ben wanted that vintage to commemorate the birth of his youngest daughter, so Mme Bollinger set them aside especially for him.
Jacques Prieur Montrachet six-litre
The 1999 vintage was the first time Domaine Jacques Prieur bottled a six-litre as a special request from Windows on the World, the restaurant in the north tower of the World Trade Center. Prieur was waiting for a great vintage; when ’99 arrived, it was perfect. Sadly, when the wines arrived in New York at the end of 2001, the restaurant was gone. The three six-litre bottles that were produced became available for purchase in 2005.
Château Haut-Brion 1995 in imperial
When it comes to outstanding potential, Haut-Brion needs no explanation. The 1995 vintage was handled flawlessly by Jean Delmas, and the resulting liquid is enticing, velvety, and oh so delicious. Out of an imperia, it is likely to outperform its smaller-vesseled friends.
Château d’Yquem 1988 in imperial
While Yquem is already known as the First Growth of all the sweet wines, it’s also known that it ages phenomenally. The 1988 is an extraordinary vintage that is as strong as it is supple. An imperial of this golden liquid offers the opportunity to age… forever?
Maybe not forever, but it presents a unique opportunity to wait for and experience the longevity and legendary development of one of the most complex and age-worthy wines ever made.
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Louis Roederer, Cristal Millennium Cuvée 1990 in methuselah
Last but certainly not least is a methuselah of Cristal’s Millennium Cuvée, equivalent to a 6-litre.
This unique blend of Cristal was made only once and was released in only the methuselah format. Just 2,000 methuselahs were made and released by Louis Roederer in 1999 in preparation for the millennium, and with many now consumed these fabulous big bottles are now becoming hard to find.