Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Small but mighty wines

Small is often seen as a bad thing. No, I’m not going to go there - get your head out of the gutter; but you have “small man syndrome”, “small-minded” or Presidents with suspiciously small hands. The word small seems to convey something that is substandard or under-developed. But is small always a bad thing?

In the world of wine, small can have some positive connotations. Small-batch production, tends to represent artisanal, crafted produce that is made by someone who cares passionately about their produce and aren’t chasing the volume and scale of bigger producers. In addition, small can also come, of course, in the size of the bottle that you buy. I’m sure a lot of people are familiar with the idea of buying half bottles of wine (375ml) or even the quarter bottles that people tend to buy just before they go on a train journey (back when we did that kind of thing). But what are some of the benefits of buying half-bottles and why could this be an interesting area for wine lovers?

Well, I think there are a number of reasons. 

Firstly, in a world where people want to be careful about their consumption due to the effects of alcohol, but also the calorific impact on their diet, a half bottle can be a really good way of promoting moderation. As part of trying to have a healthy attitude towards alcohol I tend to limit myself to two mid-week nights during the week when I’ll have a glass of something nice and save my more extravagant consumption for the weekend. On these mid-week nights I find that a half-bottle is a great way of rewarding you with a nice glass or two, but without pushing the boat out too much (particularly if you have a partner who also doesn’t like to over-consume). 

Secondly, half bottles represent a nice way to explore wines that you are thinking of buying in larger formats at a reasonable price. This is the same rationale that has allowed Enomatic machines such as the ones at The Sampler to flourish, or the use of Coravin in restaurants to allow people to purchase small samples of very expensive wine - you get to see what the fuss is about and then make a decision about whether you’d pay the price for more of the wine. With halves you are usually paying either half or just over half the price of a standard bottle, which allows you to maybe trade up a bit on the quality of the wine that you are selecting. I particularly like it when restaurants have a decent selection of halves (Le Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham is one such restaurant that has stuck in my mind - I wrote a blog on visiting there a little while ago on my other site) as this can allow you a glass of fizz at the beginning, a half with the starters, a half with the mains and a digestif; plenty of different wines to try, but not going too overboard on the consumption (or price) side. 

I think these reasons are summarised in the maxim that I personally try and extol as often as I can: “drink less, but better”. Drinking should be about enjoyment and satisfaction, but this needs to come with a healthy approach towards moderation. Spending a bit more money on the wine that you drink, but then drinking less of it is I think the right approach and one that can help contribute to living a healthy and happy life.

So, I’ve extolled the virtues of half bottles of wine. Where would I recommend going to get some if you were interested? There are two main suppliers that I would immediately recommend.

The Little Fine Wine Company

I’ll start with The Little Fine Wine Company. This is a company that was specifically set up to promote the sale of half bottles of wine, although they do stock some standard sized bottles and some magnums. However, their main offering is certainly on the half bottles. They have a great range of wines covering most bases from old world to new world, dry to sweet and fortified. The prices range from £7.50 halves all the way to £74.95 for a half of 2014 Domaine Faiveley Grand Cru Clos des Cortons. 

I recently bought a selection of their wines, which I am looking forward to working my way through, but I have already tried a couple of them. Starting with a Nyetimber Classic Cuvée (NV) (price £18.95) which I opened as part of a breakfast celebration for my wife’s birthday recently. We had a whole day of imbibing ahead of us, so I felt that a whole bottle for breakfast would have been a bit too much and this half was perfect. Really did start the day in just the manner that I wanted. 

 In addition, I also opened a half of Kumeu River’s 2017 Coddington Chardonnay (price £15.95). I’m a big fan of Kumeu River’s wines and in particular their Chardonnays - this was showing very nicely under screwcap with the wine already having a lot of butteriness an richness to it. It had a really quite luscious profile both on the nose and on the palate. I served this with some nice mushroom orzo during the week and with my wife only really after a snifter, the half bottle was a perfect size.

Lastly, being summer-time I needed to have some rosé! A half of 2019 Whispering Angel from Provence (price £10.95) was just what I was looking for. The wine itself is quite fresh with some cranberry notes and raspberries. There was great acidity to the wine, which was rounded off with some breadth to the palate, giving it a nice balance. I really enjoyed the nose though, which I felt had an almost strawberry and cream nose - if there’s ever going to be something that screams summer then it’s a rosé that has strawberries and cream aromas!

The Wine Society 

Another merchant that I’d recommend in the sphere of halves is The Wine Society. They also have a great selection, their halves start at £4.50 and you can get many halves of their excellent Exhibition Range wines for under a tenner. Their half range goes up to the heady heights of £295 with a half of a 2001 Chateau Yquem - that’s quite the range of prices there! 

I’ve had a few halves over the years from The Wine Society, but I recently opened a bottle of 2015 Trimbach Riesling (photo towards the top of this page) which was absolutely fantastic: laser-like precision to it with bags of flavour and personality. A great food wine as pretty much all Alsatian Riesling is. Unfortunately I don’t think the Wine Society is stocking any halves of this any more but the full bottle of the 2017 Riesling costs £18.50 (this on their list but currently out of stock). 

Another great reason to open half bottles, is dessert wines. In a household of two, we aren’t really ever going to knock off a whole bottle of sweeter wine in one sitting. So for whole bottles, the Coravin comes in very useful, but so does buying halves of sweet wines. I recently opened a half bottle of the Society's 2015 Sauternes (£10.95), which was not quite golden in the glass, but had a nice rich yellow hue to it. On the nose it had typical Sauternes notes of marmalade and honey, accompanied by fruity aromas of mandarin and a bit of mango too. I would class it as pretty, if not hugely complex. On the mouth it was pleasingly sweet, but with a great big acidic sweep that balances out the sweetness. This is not a big, bold wine like a Beerenauslese or a Trockenbeerenauslese, but is quite perfumed and delicate. I think this would go very nicely with cheese or some lighter desserts. 

What do you make of half-bottles? Do you buy them, would you? If not, why not? Let me know in the comments below.