Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Size Matters - Does Big Bottles mean better tasting Wine?

'Big is Beautiful' is a mantra I could definitely get on board with, on an every day basis. When making the day-to-day choices in life, I never need encouragement to go with the 'go large or go home' way of thinking. You give me the choice of extra chips with that, I go extra chips; you ask if I want trade up to the sports edition, I go along for the ride; dangle the option of master suite over the twin room, I know which key I'm taking.

When it comes to wine, size is no issue at all on the market. You can go from a single serving mini bottle, right on through to the ma-hoosive 40 bottle monsters that can be bought by the super-rich, but are rarely seen in the 'glass' by us mere mortals. The question is, with all these different choices and sizes on the retail scene, does the bigger it becomes, the better it will get?

The main size on the market is the standard 75cl bottles. This has been the format for the past 300-odd years, as back in the 18th Century, when wine was much lower in alcohol, this measure was seen as adequate for the normal man to consume with a meal. However, any Chateau that was worth its salt showcased its greatest wines in larger formats such as magnums (150cl) or jeroboams (300cl). These colossal capsules aren't the biggest however. Upwards from these, you can go to Rehoboam (6 bottles) Imperial/Methuselah (8 bottles), Salmanzar (12 bottles), Balthazar (16 bottles) or Nebuchanezzar (20 bottles). There are even bigger sizes than this, but to say they are rarer than a British train timetable running on time is an understatement.

The question is why they make them in these sizes, outside of the ego trip that it must give the winemakers themselves? Here comes the science bit, boys and girls...

Oxygen is vital to help to open up a wine and help it evolve, but it is also wine's obvious enemy, as it attacks the wine's flavour compounds and turns them essentially into vinegar. So, as either a wine is closed with a cork or a screwcap closure, the gap (or in wine-speak terms, the ullage) between the wine and the end of the cork is full of both sulphur dioxide and oxygen and comes into contact with the wine. The more wine that the 'oxygen' comes into contact with, the slower and better the evolving of the wine. This effect is even more apparent in Champagne magnums or jeroboams. As well as the fact that the carbon dioxide within the bottle helps to partially act as a preservative (again restricting the oxidative effect), when it comes to ageing the wines on the 'lees' (the dead yeasts that are left behind after fermentation), the more wine that is in contact with them, the more freshness is preserved and the slower the ageing of the wine. Bigger bottles are also more resistant to temperature fluctuations that can occur when storing or moving the bottles from place to place, as a larger volume of wine obviously takes longer to warm up or cool down, so it helps with preserving the flavours and complexity. A common problem with large bottles, (outside of them being a pain in the backside to store) is that much wine popped in these gloriously large bottles are meant to be aged, so if you tuck into them too early in their life, you'll get a tannic, harsh, chewy wine if its red or a acidic, full wine if its white. Not very pleasant on the tastebuds, I'm sure you'd agree.

So, on that basis, smaller bottles than your usual 75cl must be the wine version of the second hand jumper in the Couture shop? Not so much...

A report earlier this year showed that consumption of smaller volume versions of some of the world's favourite wines in this country has increased massively, so the question of quality doesn't seem to need answering. What may alter the taste is the age of the wine. Wines meant to be consumed young, like Prosecco, Rose and light fruity reds can easily been seem adorning the supermarket shelves in half bottle and quarter bottle form and are a great serve for convenience and help towards sensible consumption targets. However, if the vintage of the wine is a bit on the old side, this can cause problems with the taste. Just like larger format bottles can help to age the wine over twice the period a 75cl bottle can, half bottles, etc.. can take half the time to do the same, so the wine within the bottle could be over the hill at best, fruit vinegar at worst.

Whether you like your volumes large or small, it all depends on when the final joyous consumption will be. Too soon for a large bottle and you may end up catching it too early and get a mouth-puckering experience, too late for a smaller bottle and it may be just end up being foul smelling juice.

Big may be Beautiful much of the time, but sometimes good things do come in smaller packages.

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