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Do magnums and other large format bottles age better?
Hugo Rose examines the conventional wisdom that they do.
It's common knowledge that wine lives longer in larger bottles, isn't it? Yes, anecdotally this seems to be the case, though I once was persuaded to share in a methusalem (8 bottles equivalent) of rioja at a Spanish restaurant which was simply awful. In this instance it was almost certainly 'late bottled', ie filled from normal bottles (just as with the largest formats of champagne), so the beneficial effects of size were negated.
The explanation given for the slower ageing in a large format is that the ullage (air space) is proportionately smaller relative to the volume of liquid and so the rate of evolution is slower. I have always struggled to come to terms with this as the throat diameter is usually bigger in a larger bottle, and, crucially, much of a wine's evolution is related to the large volume of dissolved oxygen it carries with it into the bottle, not from the small amount in the headspace.
My scepticism took a boost from an unlikely source, a Burgundy domaine. Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac mentioned during a tasting visit some years back that he had saved halves, bottles and magnums of the same vintage of Clos de la Roche in his cellar. When the wine was mature he opened one of each and served them blind to fellow winemakers. None was able to tell them apart, let alone work out which was from which bottle size.
Seysses speculated that their similarity was due to their not having left his cellar, ever, during their life. He surmised that differential evolution rates are a consequence of the thermal and physical shocks experienced by wine as it is handled and moved around. Minimise these dimensions and the development curves of different bottles tends to look the same.
I was very taken with the hypothesis, though recognising it as far from scientific. That thermal and physical inertia is afforded by larger formats is undeniable. The impact of external temperature changes on the contents of a bottle must depend on its size. A larger format will respond more slowly (as you will appreciate if you have tried to chill one) and thus will afford greater protection to the shocks experienced during its life. Until someone comes up with a better theory, I'm sticking with this one.
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