Quick – what is the volume of the most common size wine bottle? If you answered 750 milliliters, 0.75 liters, or a fifth of a gallon, you’re correct. If you did not know, you’ve learned something new today and can take the rest of the day off.
Why 750mL? Let’s not get too far into that debate. You can find plenty of speculation on the internet, and I suggest you take most of it with a grain of salt. The more simple and convenient the explanation, the greater my skepticism. One persistent idea says that 750mL was the volume of a glass-blower’s lungs. Another says that Romans viewed that quantity as the ideal serving size (ah, to be Roman…). Whatever the reason, I’ll just keep laying my 750s down to rest until their time.
But I’ll be laying other sizes next to them as well. As Kate and I taste wines, we think about what we would like to drink tonight, next year, and in ten years and beyond. That last category demands a little care. Our budget and storage space do not allow us to snatch up the latest and greatest vintages by the case to sit in a cool, dark place for the next decade or two until we have our robot butler open them for us on special occasions. When we buy for long-term cellaring, we buy just a bottle or two, but we like to go with larger-format bottles. These typically start with a volume twice that of a standard 750 and go up from there. Large format bottles are well-suited for aging, as the ratio of the total volume of liquid exposed to the air beneath the cork (known as the ullage) is much greater. Considering the aging potential of their contents, these bottles can also fetch more at auction.
Remember, though, that the ratio of liquid to air is only one component of aging. The wine’s characteristics, notably its tannins and acidity, help determine whether the wine will stand up to years (or decades) of storage and reach the other end with the soft, complex, nuanced smells and flavors for which fine, aged wine is renowned. And without proper storage conditions (something close to a dark, quiet space of 55°F and 60% humidity), you’re rolling the dice on whether your investment will give you the enjoyment you expect on that special occasion.
So to answer the question – when it comes to aging an age-worthy wine, yes, bigger can be better. I’ll leave you with the names of large format bottles, as you will often see names rather than volume on wine menus in fine dining restaurants.
- 1.5L (2 bottles): Magnum
- 3.0L (4 bottles): Double-magnum (Bordeaux), Jéroboam (Burgundy)
- 4.5L (6 bottles): Jéroboam (Bordeaux), Rehoboam (Burgundy)
- 6.0L (8 bottles): Impériale (Bordeaux), Methusaleh (Burgundy)
- 9.0L (12 bottles): Salmanazar
- 12.0L (16 bottles): Balthazar
- 15.0L (20 bottles): Nebuchadnezzar
Finally, here is a picture of the world’s largest (as of now) bottle of wine, housed in the Caymus winery in the Napa Valley. Not only does it hold 570 liters, or 760 bottles (over 63 cases) of wine, that wine happens to be the 2007 Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon: intense and powerful, with a tightly-wound core of black currant and blackberries layered over licorice, cedar, and vanilla. A 750mL sells for around $150; without doing any calculations, let’s just say that Kate and I were careful not to knock this bottle over as we sidled in for a picture.