Magnum Opus - What's better than a bottle of wine? One that is twice as big, says Bruce Palling

The appearance of someone clutching a magnum of wine at a social gathering is invariably noticed– it hints at indulgence and celebration, not to mention generosity of spirit. In reality, it's not so extravagant to serve a magnum rather than a bottle: if you host a dinner party for eight, a magnum still only offers one generous glass per person. But, because of their relative rarity compared to the commonplace 75cl bottle, the market invariably puts a premium on magnums, especially for vintage champagne. For fine wines over 30 years old, the price of magnums is appreciably higher than the equivalent bottle price.

There is indisputable evidence that wine and champagne mature at a slower rate in magnums, which at 1.5 litres are exactly twice the size of the normal bottle. Despite this size difference, there is an old joke among wine merchants about its drawbacks: "Trouble with the magnum is that it is too big for one and not big enough for two."

Stephen Browett, who, as owner of Farr Vintners, has probably sold more fine wine than any other individual, considers another advantage: "The older the wine, the safer you are to drink it from a magnum. If I was drinking a classic claret, say, from the 1982 vintage or even older, I would be much happier to have it in a magnum than a bottle."

Countless experiments have been done by wine enthusiasts to uncover why wine in different-sized bottles matures at different rates. The usual explanation given is that with bottles and half-bottles, there is a larger proportion of oxygen within the bottle than in larger formats. For this reason, half-bottles mature even faster than ordinary bottles.

The point was dramatically brought home to me when I attended a dinner entirely of Bordeaux from the 1959 vintage. By the time bottles have reached this age, it is agreed that it is best to describe examples as great bottles rather than wines from a great vintage, as there can
be considerable variation even in wine from the same château. Many of the wines we drank from a bottle were tired and fading, yet a magnum of Château Pichon Baron '59 seemed almost decades younger and far more vigorous.

Curiously, wines from the even larger formats, such as double magnum (3 litres), imperial (6 litres) and the rarely sighted balthazar (12 litres) or nebuchadnezzar (15 litres), do not taste noticeably better than wine from magnums. Thus the wine trade has always considered the magnum to be the ideal size for bottle-ageing fine wine.

The effect of storing champagne in magnums is as marked as with fine wine. Jancis Robinson MW, the British wine writer, recently attended a blind tasting of leading champagnes: "In very broad outline, the most interesting conclusion was that the majority of tasters did identify the magnums in more cases than not, but ended up actually preferring the wine in the regular bottle size." However, when it came to the oldest magnum, a 1996 from Cristal, most preferred it over the bottle. Champagne maintains its freshness for longer in a magnum than in a bottle, something that is more apparent the older the vintage. This is why they too command a significant premium in the marketplace.

Of course, one should never forget that bottle size alone will not improve a wine unless it has inherent quality in the first place. There are magnums of Sassicaia and Romanée-St-Vivant from 2004, and a 2002 Échezeaux, among those offered by Bonhams in September's Fine Wines sale that rise to the challenge.

Bruce Palling is Wine Editor of The Week and a wine columnist for Spectator Life.

Sale: Fine & Rare Wines
Thursday 26 September at 10.30am
Enquiries: Richard Harvey M.W. +44 (0) 20 7468 5813 [email protected]


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