Reasons to Go BIG: Large-format bottles for the serious wine collector

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Photo courtesy photogism, flickr

Any serious wine collector is likely to incorporate large-format wine bottles in a collection, regardless of whether the collector is focusing on new world wine (i.e. California’s famous “cult wines” such as Screaming Eagle, Colgin, Aruajo, Bryant Family, Grace Family, etc.) or old world wines from France or Italy (such as the famous First Growths or the burly Barolos and Brunellos, or the rich and raisiny Amarone that Italy is so famous for). The attraction is predicated on rarity for the proverbial trophy collectors and on better aging of the wine due to a more stable environment of a large container.

This ultimately translates into better auction sales – greater value for the collection. For example, at a record-breaking May 2007 auction in Chicago, a case of 89 Chateau Petrus sold for $38,240. At that same auction, two double-magnums (the equivalent of eight bottles) of the same wine and vintage, 1989 Chateau Petrus sold for more than $45,000. That translates into 3.0 liters less of the same wine for an additional $7,000.

Why do collectors and wine lovers pay a substantial premium? The answer is three-fold:

  1. Scarcity
  2. Better Juice and Aging Potential
  3. Presentation

Large Formats Are More Recherché

Rarer generally translates into more expensive. One of the main reasons certain wine increases in value (other than the scores it receives from wine critics such as Robert Parker) is small production. Expensive wine tends to be rare because it is produced in relatively small quantities, and over time there is less of it, since it gets consumed.

Rare wines in large bottles command higher prices because there are much fewer large bottles than regular size bottles. It is just that simple.  This is the basic rule of the marketplace: Supply and demand. Great wines in large-formats are rarer than their “regular” bottle counterparts.

Typically, wineries that produce collectible wines designed for aging, bottle much fewer large-format bottles. Large-format bottles are reserved for special collectors, charity auctions, winery displays or private collections of the proprietors or their friends and family. Many large-format bottles are often special releases used to showcase outstanding vintages, mark a winery’s special occasion (i.e. new release, anniversary, construction of a new building, etc.) or be auctioned for charity.  It is important to note that not all large-format bottles are super-expensive.  Even though none are a typical bargain, some are accessible to a broader base than the just the super-wealthy.

It Is Better Wine

Frank Martell, a former wine expert at Bonham’s who now runs the wine department at Heritage Auctions, points out that there is “history of better stock being bottled in large format glass.”  If you go back to anything made pre-1960s, he explains, “those were wines that were blended in racks, rather than the tanks wine makers use today.” It made homogenous blending very difficult. Consequently, certain barrels of finished product would be higher quality, and usually, more tannic. That stock would usually be bottled in large-format bottles for better storage. Because those batches were also generally more tannic, they also would have been more fresh and elegant upon opening. “This is also another part of the reason older magnums command not double or even triple but sometimes quadruple value,” points out Martell.

Without getting overly technical, we know that wine ages through oxidation. There is a fairly small amount of oxygen trapped inside every wine bottle.  The space between the wine and the cork is called ullage, and older bottles can often show a shoulder fill – greater ullage. This is often predominantly a result of oxidation, which occurs naturally over time.

A big wine bottle has less oxygen relative to the volume of wine, which means that the wine oxidizes more slowly. Think of the ratio of air to liquid in big bottles. Slower oxidation tends to lead to a longer aging and slower and better maturation. This, in turn, effects aromas, and the overall stability of the wine, yielding wine that can age longer, given proper storage conditions (where the bottle in left in the dark with stable cool temperature and sufficient humidity to protect the integrity of the cork).

Ergo, large bottles will age better and longer, and tend to be more robust – more resistant to temperature irregularities (that can occur from power outages, moving bottles to a different location, etc.).

Master of Wine Jancis Robinson noted that only around the top 10 percent of all red wine and top 5 percent of all white wines can improve significantly enough with age to make drinking more enjoyable at 5 years of age than at 1 year of age. Additionally, Robinson estimates, only the top 1 percent of all wine has the ability to improve significantly after more than a decade. It is her belief that more wine is consumed too old, rather than too young, and that the great majority of wines start to lose appeal and fruitiness after six months in the bottle.

If you want to put a bottle or a collection of bottles away for a great occasion such as a wedding, birth of a child, anniversary, successful closing of a business transaction or a birthday bash many years in the future, a large-format bottle is a better choice. Slower oxidation means that large-format wine bottles will reach their peak long after 750 milliliter bottles have reached their prime.

The larger volume of liquid in a large-format wine bottle takes longer to warm or cool and is therefore more resistant to potentially damaging temperature fluctuations. This may be a benefit if you have less than ideal cellar conditions.

The Ultimate Trophy – Big Is Beautiful

There’s nothing like bringing out an impressive, large bottle at a big celebration like a wedding or anniversary party. They’re an immediate attention getter.  These bottles are often adorned with special labels.  Some of the big bottles are etched for more distinction, and can even serve as decorating accessories after the wine is long gone! It is not unusual to spot them as displays at snazzy restaurants.

Many will argue that part of the magic of great wine is the communal enjoyment – sharing it with friends and family at a meal or a tasting. Big bottles not only have the command presence, but actually obligate (or at least provide a reason for) their owners to open them for a large group. The old image of rusty jugs of cheap vin de table aka cheap plonk  (i.e. Blue Nun specials) at fraternity parties generally do not come to mind these days.  Big bottles are an image statement.

Collectors seek out what is rarer, more expensive, and more desirable, and highly desirable wines presented in large-format bottles epitomize rarity in the wine collector world.

Downside to Big Bottles?

So is there a downside to collecting big bottles?  There are a few to consider:  Pricing, handling and storage, risk and sale.

In terms of pricing, large-format wine bottles don’t offer price savings. In fact, the larger the bottle the more it costs per liter, as can be deduced from our discussion of the rarity, longevity, and the trophy-effect of big bottles. As we had noted, big bottles generally command a premium in the marketplace.

Pouring directly from a large wine bottle is probably a bad idea. Besides having to heft a heavy bottle, the wine can come out under enough pressure to knock a glass out of your hand. Large bottles should be poured into decanters, and may require purchasing a pouring instrument.

Opening big wine bottles can be a pain. The corks of large-format wine bottles have a larger diameter than standard bottles, but they are usually normal in length. Be certain you have a firm grip in the cork with the corkscrew and start pulling very gently, making sure the cork is moving and sliding free from the glass instead of bulging next to the corkscrew insertion point. Once the cork is moving, you should have no trouble.  Some large bottles may require using 2 cork screws.

Where do you chill your Balthazar of champagne? Empty the fridge and slide it in? Lay it in the bathtub?

When it comes to big bottles, storage is obviously a problem for most collectors. Fitting a bottle larger than a magnum in your wine cooler or wine cabinet is not easy. Even fancy wine cellars may not have adequate space to accommodate large format collections.

A collector may need to simply keep the big bottles in their original packaging (original wood). In Martell’s experience, the biggest cause for ullage problems is imperfect storage conditions that generally do not include enough humidity or where bottles are stored upright.  This allows the cork to dry up and permit more oxygen to evaporate more of the wine.  This is the flip side of the ullage advantage of collecting large glass.

Finally, there is no room for mistakes when it comes to large-format bottles. Traditionally, a wine collector will buy a case of wine they want to age and drink a bottle once a year or so to track its development and determine its maturity. With a big wine bottle, once it’s opened you’re done; you have to drink it. Finally, the market for selling particularly ultra rare and expensive large-format bottles is obviously a smaller market.  You may be auctioning them off to restaurants or the super wealthy collectors who can appreciate and afford such a big statement bottle, and have room to store such a prize.

The Final Vote

Still, the benefits of collecting wine in large-format bottles outweigh the drawbacks by a wide margin. Whether you are an ego-driven investor or a drinking purist, bigger bottles deliver value, better wine, and the ultimate in bragging rights.  Still, the biggest advantage to big bottles is that historically and due to their size they deliver better wine.  Adding large-format bottles to a collection pays off both for those focusing on building a rare valuable collection, as well as to those who collect predominantly to enjoy drinking wine, but want to plan for special occasions in the future.

(Yuri Vanetik is a private investor, philanthropist, and political coalition builder. He is the principal of Vanetik International, LLC.)