Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

Collector’s Corner

Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

General Articles

Size Matters

One reason people love large-format wine bottles is that they look so impressive on the table or displayed in the cellar. But good looks are merely a happy side effect of these super-sized wines’ real advantage: they allow the wines inside to age more slowly.

For most of wine’s long history, aging wasn’t an issue.Wine was consumed young, which was just as well, since it was often stored in animal skins or leaky casks. Although bulb-shaped glass bottles were used to serve wine as early as ancient Roman times, cylindrical wine bottles with cork stoppers did not become commonplace until the end of the 18th century. Among their many advantages was the fact that they allowed wines to be laid down—literally—for aging, with the wine inside keeping the cork moist and the seal tight.

The origins of the magnum, which holds twice as much as a standard 750-ml bottle, are shrouded in mystery, but magnums soon came to be prized by collectors because of their superior aging qualities. In fact, thanks to their aging advantage, as well as their relative rarity, magnums of older outstanding vintages often sell for far more than double the price of standard bottles at auction. "Length of life, speed of maturity, and level of ultimate quality are all in direct proportion to bottle size," writes wine authority Hugh Johnson. "The counsel of perfection is to lay down 6 magnums to every 12 bottles of each wine on which you pin really high hopes."

Double magnums, which hold the equivalent of four regular bottles, are the next size up. A double magnum is called a jeroboam when it’s filled with sparkling wine, and one historian of France’s Champagne region says that winemakers there were using these very large bottles as early as 1725. No one knows why these giant vessels were given the name of an ancient king of Israel, one whose main claim to biblical fame is that he encouraged the sin of idolatry.

A jeroboam of red wine has always held a bit more than the Champagne version. Originally a red wine jeroboam held six bottles, or 4.5 liters, but because of U.S. regulations limiting oversize bottlings to an even number of liters, a red wine jeroboam is now 5 liters, or close to seven bottles.

A key virtue of any of these larger bottles for ageable red wines is that they offer better defenses against some of time’s less positive effects. For example, exposure to air will eventually oxidize wine, causing losses of color and flavor. The larger the bottle, the smaller the surface-to-volume ratio, because less of the wine is exposed to the small amount of air within the bottle.

In addition, wine in a large-format bottle is cushioned from the outside environment by its own volume. Our Associate Winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellars, Nicki Pruss explains it this way: "If you filled a 750-ml bottle and a 5-liter bottle with ice water and put them both in a 75-degree room, which one would come to room temperature first? The small one. The thermal mass of the larger bottle means that it is relatively more protected against small temperature fluctuations, vibrations, and other disturbances." Of course, even a large-format bottle must be stored under proper conditions, away from light and vibration, with constant temperatures in the 55-to 65-degree range. (Within that range, the cooler the wine, the more slowly aging will occur.) But when conditions are right, larger bottles are an ideal way to allow age-worthy Napa Valley wines to reach their full potential.

While sparkling wines come in a wide range of sizes, jeroboams are the biggest bottles most Cabernet Sauvignon producers offer. But larger bottlings of Cabernet are sometimes created for auctions or other special occasions.