Depending on who you ask, it’s either “good things come in small packages” or “go big or go home.”
For fans of large-format wine bottles, it’s definitely the latter.
There’s just something about a ginormous bottle of wine that piques even the most casual wine consumer’s interest. And for die-hard wine aficionados, it’s an eye-catching, conversation-starting, envy-provoking addition to their cellars.
While a traditional wine bottle contains 750 milliliters, large-format bottles range from the slightly oversized 1.5-liter magnums (the equivalent of two standard bottles) to monstrous 15-liter bottles known as Nebuchadnezzars — and beyond.
“We tell customers that the bottle sizes are named after ancient biblical kings, and that in medieval times, when the king had a banquet, they would serve everyone from one large bottle so that they would be assured that each guest got the same wine quality,” says Katie Maurer, co-owner of Domaine Berrien Cellars in Berrien Springs. “And Wally (Maurer, co-owner and winemaker) jokes that winemaking was a tough gig back then, because if the king opened his big bottle of wine and it was no good, then off with the head of the winemaker!”
The Maurers have offered a handful of large-format bottles annually for the last decade — very large.
“Currently, we have been doing a 9-liter (Salmanazar) and 15-liter (Nebuchadnezzar) ones, just because those are the sizes we can get,” says Katie Maurer.
Seeing as the smaller of the two alone can hold an entire case — 12 bottles — worth of wine, it’s not surprising that the gigantic bottles inspire intrigue. While Maurer confirms initial interest in the bottles is high, it often wanes after prospective buyers see the cost.
“Lots of customers ask about them when they see them on display,” she says, “but very few are still interested once they hear the price — currently $415 to $699, depending on size and which wine they’re filled with.”
Bowers Harbor Vineyards on Old Mission Peninsula also offers big bottles. They began producing 3-liter bottles of their Bordeaux-style blend, 2896 Langley, in 2002, adding magnums of their Rieslings to the mix starting in 2004, says Justin Leshinsky, BHV’s director of sales and marketing. They’ve since expanded the program to include 6- and 9-liter bottles of the 2896 Langley and 3-, 6-, and 9-liter bottles of Cabernet Franc and Claret.
It all began “to add some flair to our library (cellar),” he says, “but people started showing interest, so we started making more to sell. We don’t sell a lot, but the serious wine collectors enjoy purchasing them. Most are numbered and signed by the winemaker.”
When James Lester, owner and winemaker at Wyncroft in southwest Michigan, began bottling wine in large format in 1991, his original purpose was to study them as they aged. Since then, Lester says he has sold some 1.5- and 3-liter bottles, particularly to restaurateurs and collectors.
“In France, people buy them at the birth of their children, and open them at their weddings for guests,” says Lester, who focuses on pinot noir, chardonnay, riesling, gewürztraminer, and a Bordeaux-style blend for his large-format bottles. “It’s a wonderful tradition.
“I have several customers who buy them from me for this purpose.”
Like Lester, Chateau Aeronautique owner and winemaker Lorenzo Lizarralde believes magnums’ main appeal lies with customers planning celebrations and “wine geeks.”
Lizarralde is just getting into the large-format game, having recently introduced 85 hand-numbered magnums of his 2012 Aviatrix Crimson, a Bordeaux-style blend. He suggests giving one to newlyweds with instructions to open it on their 10th anniversary, or to expectant parents with the idea that it will be opened when their “baby” turns 21.
“The common thread: Magnums are for sharing with loved ones on special occasions,” he says.
Just For Show — And Then Some
Northern Michigan’s Black Star Farms has been offering 3-liter bottles (double magnums) of pinot noir, cabernet franc, and barrel-aged chardonnay since their first vintage in 1998, according to tasting room manager Chris Lopez. They don’t sell them, though, so getting your hands on one is rare indeed.
“We only use them for donation purposes,” says Lopez. “People get pretty excited when they receive one of the big bottles. I think the excitement is because you rarely see a bottle of wine larger than a magnum — that, and because most people open them at family gatherings or parties. We get lots of pictures of people posing with the bottles at parties.”
While the main appeal to the consumer is the sheer size and limited availability, there’s also a science behind the benefits of large-format bottles, Fenn Valley owner Doug Welsch says. Like Black Star Farms, Fenn Valley’s magnums of Capriccio and Meritage primarily end up as donations to nonprofit auctions and “novelty items” in the tasting room.
“The wine does age slower in a large-format bottle than in a 750 (milliliter) — assuming that the cork makes a good seal and the bottle is stored on its side,” he says. “A 3 liter ages at about half the rate of a 750 milliliter.”
Welsch warns that they must be stored at a constant temperature.
“Minor changes in the temp result in large changes in volume, due to the large volume of the container, and the small headspace below the cork has trouble absorbing these volume changes in the liquid below,” he says. “Hence, they tend to leak more than a 750.”
Larry Mawby, owner and winemaker at the all-sparkling, all-the-time L. Mawby Winery on the Leelanau Peninsula, also partially credits science for why he offers his Cremant Classic, Talismon, and Blanc de Blancs in magnums.
Magnums are “generally considered to be the ideal size for traditional method sparkling wines — the best for gaining and developing the best bottle bouquet,” he says.
Beyond that, he says, “They are impressive.”
Mawby says he can rarely keep the big bottles of bubbly in stock.
“Customers love it,” he says. “We are almost always sold out of magnums. I’ve never predicted the demand three or four years out well enough.
“The magnum of bubbly is great for special groups celebrating anything, and they have long been known as a perfect single-serving size for a gentleman at his club — or a bubblehead at home.”
Cortney Casey is a certified sommelier and co-founder of MichiganByTheBottle.com, a website and online community that promotes the entire Michigan wine industry. She’s also co-owner of Michigan By The Bottle Tasting Room, joint offsite tasting rooms in partnership with multiple Michigan wineries, located in Shelby Township and Royal Oak. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.