A Collector’s Guide to Large Format Wines


A Collector’s Guide to Large Format Wines

Wine Team New York |

Warning: Side effects of browsing wine auctions at Sotheby’s may include widening of the eyes and slight palpitations of the heart. It’s not the alcohol – it’s the frequently massive bottles of wine that’s causing collectors to swoon. Wine professionals have long held a preference for bigger wine bottles – they’re easier to store and mature for optimal enjoyment – but what ultimately makes large-format wine bottles so coveted?

Magnum comes from the Latin word magnus, meaning “great.” Today, it commonly refers to the wine bottle size of 1.5 litres, which is twice as large as the standard size of 0.75 litres. Since advances in glass-making in the 19th century, wines have been produced in a variety of sizes, from demi (375ml) to methuselah/imperial (6 litres), which is the equivalent of eight standard bottles. This biblical naming convention extends up to salmanazar (9 litres), balthazar (12 litres) and nebuchadnezzar (15 litres).

Myth or fact? The 0.75-litre bottle has been attributed to the full lung capacity of a glass-blower, but the real reason for the standardised size is more likely due to practical origins. Producers found that the bottle size made it easier to divide a 225-litre barrel of wine into 300 bottles, with six bottles roughly making up an imperial gallon – the system used by the British at the time. The streamlined bottle was also convenient to transport and allowed for a reasonable amount of wine to be shared by a few people at a time. For all these alleged reasons, the 0.75-litre bottle became the industry standard in France and globally since.

There are, however, a few reasons why a larger format protects the wine inside, one of several reasons making them more desirable. The first is the ratio of interaction with air. As the amount of ullage (volume of air space between the surface of wine and the cork enclosure) remains similar whether in a standard bottle or magnum, there is a lower ratio of air to wine in magnums, which is said to allow for a slower ageing process over the years.

A bigger bottle also means that it is made of thicker glass and able to insulate more against exposure to light or temperature fluctuations. In addition, larger bottles are less likely to be handled due to their weight and size, which also cuts down on the contents being agitated. They also receive more care during production, as these vessels can’t be placed on the bottling line and have to be expertly filled by hand. All these factors tend to add up to the bottle’s rarity, as they are not produced in mass numbers.

Large-Format Wine Bottles at Auction

When top-flight vintages from Bordeaux and Burgundy are available in larger formats, it raises the stakes significantly for the enjoyment of the wine inside. From Domaine de la Romanée-Conti to Mouton Rothschild and Château La Mission Haut-Brion, a 2023 wine auction featuring colossal formats in Hong Kong offered plenty for the wine connoisseur to explore.

Haut Brion immediately featured prominently with a magnificent line-up of the 1989 vintage in standard, magnum, double magnum and imperial. A perfect wine with multiple 100-point scores, this Pessac Léognan original First Growth continues to impress as it matures elegantly. Under the same family since 1983 is La Mission Haut-Brion, with a reputation as keen as its neighbour but at a lower price tag. Here too one can discover the defining 1989 vintage of La Mission via the standard or imperial size bottle.

Astute collectors no doubt focused on the Margaux, represented in the auction with the 2000 vintage, which is considered a legendary Bordeaux year. Choices ranged from magnum, double magnum or imperial to savour the mellowing intricacies of the powerful year.

Rounding out the First Growths was the Mouton Rothschild 1982 imperial and 1986 jeroboam – that’s 4.5 litres, or the equivalent of six bottles. Mouton Rothschild offers meticulously aged wines with a reputation to beat – after all, the oldest vintage in their own cellar is a 1859!

Few bottles are as tantalising as Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in the auction world today. But in 2023 we saw an unprecedented array of Burgundian treasures, in large formats that turned the heads of even the most seasoned collectors. There was Echézeaux 2004 in 6-bottle lots and 3L jeroboam, in original cases, as well as Romanée St. Vivant 2000 in methuselah – a fulsome six litres. Collectors also had the pristine choice of the Romanée St. Vivant 1996, 1997 or 1998 in cases of six magnums each – an instant heavyweight addition to the prized cellar.

But it is DRC’s monopoles as always that command the room. Included in the sale was a selection that spanned a full 12-bottle lot of La Tâche 1998, or six magnums from the 1994 vintage. Jeroboam enthusiasts bid on the La Tâche 2000, 2001, 2002 or 2004, while the coveted methuselah (6 litres) of La Tâche 2002 would go a long way to commemorate a birthday or anniversary. Look carefully as the monopole of Romanée Conti 2000 yields a single jeroboam for the lucky future owner.

The long and short of it is that large format bottles are more rewarding in the enduring-term, giving collectors a longer runway in which to enjoy their purchase. Not to mention, they always make a lasting impression, whether opened up for sharing and enjoyment or continuing their long, silent slumber.

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