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Sizing Up Bottle Sizes

Testing the Big Bottle Theory with five sizes of Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 1995
Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages 1995 in five iterations: methuselah, jeroboam, magnum, standard and half-bottle.

Posted: Dec 19, 2013 10:50am ET

Bottle size matters when it comes to wine, but maybe not as much as you might think. That's important to understand if you own larger-format bottles, or are considering buying some.

Conventional wisdom is that smaller bottles age faster than larger ones because smaller bottles have a smaller ratio of wine volume to oxygen, of which there is about the same amount in all bottle formats. That anecdotal thinking has been passed along for decades, becoming one of winedom's golden rules.

Actually testing the theory is more difficult. To begin with, most wineries don't bottle in a wide range of formats. It turns out that the size most people would love to have more of, half-bottles, aren't made by many wineries. Methuselahs, which hold the equivalent of eight bottles and are unwieldy to pour much less decant, are very rare, with correspondingly much higher prices.

Over the past year, I've contacted several wineries about testing this theory and only found one that had a full range from half-bottles to Methuselahs. Moreover, uncorking a Methuselah calls for one of those thirsty special-occasion tailgate-size gatherings. There are other considerations as well. Namely one needs wine with enough age to test the theory.

Chateau St. Jean in Sonoma was the lone winery I found that had a full range of sizes and was willing to open all five, using its 1995 Cinq Cépages, Sonoma County for the experiment. Cing Cépages stands for the five varieties used in its Bordeaux-inspired blend, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot from a variety of appellations. St. Jean winemaker Margo Van Staaveren and public relations director Nicole Carter hosted and participated in the blind tasting at St. Jean earlier this year. All of the wines had been cellared at St. Jean, meaning none had left the property, an ideal situation since once wine moves around all kinds of variables are introduced.

First we tasted the wines, then we discussed them and guessed which one came from what sized bottle, wondering too whether we could differentiate the wine's development and assign it to a bottle size. We all agreed wine No. 3, which turned out to be the half-bottle (375ml), tasted the most advanced, but only ever so slightly; it's in prime drinking shape and has plenty of life ahead. We also guessed correctly the 750ml, or regular-sized bottle. And we were able to guess the largest, the methuselah. It appeared the most unevolved. But the wine's "maturity" based on bottle size wasn't clear-cut.

All five of the 18-year-old wines were similar—intense, youthful, and identical in color and exhibiting enticing cigar box, olive, road tar, smoke and earth-laced dark berry flavors. When we repoured the wines to refresh them about an hour later, the wines seemed much closer in quality. In fact, the 750ml, magnum (1.5 liter), jeroboam (3 liters) and methuselah (6 liters) were difficult to differentiate.

Three hours later I restaged the tasting in my office, blind again, using wines that had been poured into lab bottles and found it a little easier to pick the wine that tasted the freshest from the one more evolved. But there was one big hitch. The jeroboam was corked. It showed fine in the initial tasting, but later tasted dry and bitter. It had taken a full four hours for the tainted cork character to emerge; when I looked at my notes I'd written during the first tasting I had indicated that the jeroboam had seemed earthier and more tannic, with a more pronounced tobacco leaf edge than the other wines.

Larger bottles are also bottled differently. Magnums at St. Jean are filled with six-spout fillers and corked by hand. Jeroboams and methuselahs are bottled from special tanks and hand corked. Cork sizes increase with bottleneck size. Nearly 12,000 cases of the 1995 Cinq Cépages were made: 375ml ($40 today, totaled 500 cases), 750ml ($75, 11,000 cases), magnum ($160, 110 cases), jeroboam ($400, 110 bottles) and methuselah ($1,000, 28 bottles). St. Jean no longer bottles 375s; the economics of selling half-bottles wasn't worth the trouble for them.

My takeaway from the tasting: If you want to cellar wines, magnums are just the right size.

Kerry Winslow
San Francisco, California, USA —  December 19, 2013 12:29pm ET
Thanks for your interesting experience, it confirms mostly that big bottles do hold up better over time and that magnums are the best option, though 750s will still rule the day.

Happy Holidays
Greg Flanagan
Bethel, CT —  December 19, 2013 7:05pm ET

As always, love your topics and writing. You make wine fun.

James (or anyone),

Any suggestions on how to open a Methuselah? The "normal" openers just don't seem like they can handle something of this size....
James Laube
Napa —  December 19, 2013 7:21pm ET
Greg, thanx for the compliment.

Good point about the cork size. Perhaps sommeliers or those with more experience can share thoughts, but for sure if it's an older wine (and therefore older cork), go slowly with a waiter's corkscrew. Not sure an ah-so would help.

As for decanting, the times I've observed big bottles decanted had very strong arms holding them and large decanters. The pourer tilted the bottle from a table or counter into several decanters; keeping a steady pour is best, same as decanting a regular bottle. I'm not sure whether a flashlight would help much either with sediment, but if it's an older bottle, eventually the sediment will be apparent either from the pour or in the decanter. I'd pour the least bit (maybe a half bottle or so) into a decanter and let the sediment settle and pour it off from there.
Kelly Carter
Colorado —  December 20, 2013 1:05am ET

To validate your experience with Cing Cépages, wouldn't it be appropriate to taste other regions of the world, or do your colleagues who taste other countries agree the myth of larger size and longevity is just that?

Christopher Ogorman
Cloverdale, CA —  December 20, 2013 12:15pm ET
Good stuff. I've always wondered what a blind tasting like this would reveal.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  December 20, 2013 1:36pm ET
I've always thought Pinot Noir ages better in Magnums & Double Magnums better than 750's, especially after 10 years.

The question is , WHY?

Better storage perhaps, more more mass for less temperature variation?

Eric Hall
Roadhouse Winery
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  December 27, 2013 6:33pm ET

I would suggest the science here is really quite simple. The larger the bottle or container size, the less opportunity there is for oxidation.

I think James points this out, "smaller bottles have a smaller ratio of wine volume to oxygen."

Jim Gallagher
San Francisco, CA USA —  December 28, 2013 12:46pm ET
Great topic and as so often more study will increase our understanding of the impact of bottle size on cellared wine. Next steps might consider comparing just two sizes (750ml & 3.0L), one varietal of several producers thus expanding or constraining the view that larger formats enhance ageability.
A question: Why not use a siphoning procedure for decanting large formats? I have found this to be best for 3.0 liters and above.
Brian Clouse
Philly —  December 31, 2013 6:39pm ET
I would also like to hear people's thoughts on opening a methusehla. Jim Gallagher: how exactly would you go about "a siphoning procedure"?

Great article Jim.
Tim Pistoresi
Merced ca —  January 1, 2014 4:35pm ET
Dear James,
This latest article was really interesting. It was a focused, honest attempt to examine the validity of a question any wine guy like me would want to know. It's valuable to me to have your perspective.
I'm going to continue my policy of having a mix of 750mil's and Mag's of my favorates and then consuming the smaller bottles first and the mags at the later dates. Your column is the first thing I read in each issue of Wine Spectator. Keep us posted!
David Williams
Carlsbad CA —  January 3, 2014 4:47pm ET
"I would also like to hear people's thoughts on opening a methusehla. Jim Gallagher: how exactly would you go about 'a siphoning procedure'"

Ted V Phillips
Glen Ellyn, IL, USA —  January 5, 2014 9:44am ET
When you said all the 18 year old bottles were intense and youthful, that may explain the difficulty in differentiating by bottle size. In fact, in my view, that statement alone is the most noteworthy part of your tasting. As a regular drinker of aged wines, it is rare to drink a sample of bottles of a particular wine from an older vintage and not get a noticeable variation in quality. This may speak more to the longevity of the 1995 Cinq Cepages, a favorite of mine. I would guess if you did this tasting again 5 years from now it might provide a different outcome.
Peter Hickner
Seattle —  January 6, 2014 7:55pm ET
"smaller bottles have a smaller ratio of wine volume to oxygen."

Has anyone ever quantified this ratio? Is there enough oxygen trapped in the neck after bottling to matter? Wouldn't a tiny difference in the permiability of the cork make much more difference over twenty years?

Easy answers are not always correct answers.

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