We all know that size matters and – in the wine world – a magnum is the size that matters most.
A guest who spots a magnum on arrival knows fun is sure to follow. Clearly the host has a sense of theatre, great taste and is magnanimous. A magnum is a great ice-breaker – so much more interesting than chatting about the weather. The pour is pure performance art – spectacular in itself.
Yet not showy. Definitely not showy. The English horror of ostentatious flaunting of wealth is avoided. Not for them the rapper habit of ordering gold bottles of champagne crowned with burning sparklers in a nightclub. No. That’s just tacky. They have much more taste a discretion.
The fizzerati know that a magnum is the perfect size for the best quality wine. A standard bottle of 75cl was only adopted as the appropriate ration for one man with dinner. A magnum allows fizz to develop optimally. Why?
First, a magnum holds 1.5L of wine – twice the size of a standard bottle – but importantly, there’s the same amount of ullage (the empty space between the wine and the cork) as with a standard bottle. Or put another way, a magnum has the same amount of air but a larger quantity of wine. This matters because cork is porous allowing oxygen to come into contact with the wine and risking oxidization. A little oxygen and a lot of wine means less risk. The wine remains fresher for longer and so can be left to evolve gently to its full potential without spoiling. Interestingly the same wine tastes dramatically different depending on whether it is aged in a standard bottle or a magnum and the wine in the magnum will taste better.
Secondly, wine producers tend to put their best wines in magnums in the first place. It is expensive to change their production process to accommodate a larger format bottle, so they only do it if they think the wine is worth it. So magnums are reserved for the best wines.
Thirdly, the thick glass and greater quantity of wine in a magnum gives greater protection from light, temperature changes and vibration. Magnums are more able to resist the risk of harm from environmental challenges.
All of this means that great wine gently evolves into the best wine that it can be developing maturity and nuanced flavours. It ages well. So it’s a great investment bottle particularly as magnums tend to be more rare. You just have to resist drinking it.
Moreover, magnums are SO practical.
– They last longer. As they have a full 12 glasses of wine per magnum so the host can stay entertaining his guests instead of constantly popping off to pop a cork. Let’s be honest – a single standard bottle is never going to be enough. A magnum doesn’t interrupt the flow of the party.
– A magnum also ensures consistency. Sometimes two identical standard bottles of the same wine can vary enormously. Ideally all your guests will enjoy the same wine and wine from the same bottle will be consistent.
– Magnums can be poured easily. It’s a spectacular thing to watch but an individual can do it effortlessly. It does not need a couple of burly waiters to heft the bottle and splosh it in the general of a waiting glass, with all the inaccuracy of a blunderbuss.
– A magnum is a table centrepiece so a more ornate tablescape is unnecessary. Such a magnum opus is impressive enough by itself. There’s no need to scourge your inner Martyr Stewart.
– There’s less detritus to clear up and one bottle takes up less space in your recycling bin than two standard bottles. Honestly!
– Magnums make fabulous pinterest-inspired projects: I fill our empties with sand to make doorstops but they also make great tablelamps, vases etc if you are so inclined.
Why not go bigger?
So if magnums are better, isn’t even bigger even better? The short answer is ‘No’. A magnum really is the optimal size. For starters, bigger bottles simply can’t be poured easily and no-one enjoys having their finery drenched with fizz. Also a magnum is the biggest bottle format where the wine is fermented in that same bottle. All the bigger bottles have wine decanted from smaller bottles: so it loses bubbles during decanting and is exposed to oxygen making it less fresh and risking oxidisation. It also means that you cannot keep it to age it but instead need to drink it pronto – so it’s a less good investment. Stick with Magnums.
Just in case you are curious about the bigger bottles I have jotted them down but I’m not encouraging you to choose them. After a standard bottle and a magnum, you can remember the bottle sizes using a pneumonic that my friend Clive Barlow MW taught me: Jerry Met Sally Bane.
Jeroboam – 3L. (4 bottles) (24 glasses)
Rehoboam – 4.5 L. (6 bottles) (36 glasses)
Methusalah – 6L. (8 bottles) (48 glasses)
Salmanazar – 9L. (12 bottles) (72 glasses)
Balthazar – 12L. (16 bottles) (96 glasses)
Nebuchadnezzar – 15L. (20 bottles) (120 glasses)
I hope Sally and Jerry popped a cork together.