Food & Drink: Size does matter, and big is best

The decision to buy a magnum-size bottle of champagne has more to do with taste than ostentation, says Anthony Rose

DOES SIZE matter? Apparently so. Not slow to pass up a commercial opportunity, the wine trade has decided that many of us will be trading up when the celebrations commence, not only in price but also in size. Magnums they say, the next size up from the standard 75 centilitre bottle, will be the most popular choice. Last year Champagne massively upped its UK shipments of magnums (280,000), jeroboams (6,000) and methusalehs (830). According to the Champagne Bureau's director, Francoise Peretti, "it's intriguing because compared with America the UK isn't well-known for large flaconnage".

Rarity value puts a premium on large formats. An imperial (eight-bottle size) of the 1993 Penfolds Grange for instance, normally around pounds 100 a bottle, fetched pounds 6,200 at Sotheby's last month. But biblically proportioned formats bring headaches, and not just of the hangover variety. What if your nebuchadnezzar (20 bottles) is corked? And you won't get a balthazar (16) into a wine rack or the fridge.The most appropriate package is the magnum. It's festive, it's substantial and it looks mighty impressive. It's also supposed to be the ideal medium for ageing wine.

The received wisdom is that a magnum keeps wine better than a standard bottle because relatively less oxygen gets into the wine. Is this a myth? When Jacques Seysses of Domaine Dujac in Burgundy noticed a difference between the same wine aged in different-sized bottles, he decided to bottle some of his 1978 Clos St Denis in halves, bottles and magnums. But when he brought in a group of experts to taste them blind almost 20 years on, they couldn't tell the difference. Seysses' theory is that "during transportation, the small volume of air between wine and cork creates more oxidation in a bottle than a magnum, and only then is the ageing process affected".

Bollinger keeps all its older wines in magnums, because, according to managing director, Ghislain de Montgolfier, "the best balance between air and wine is a magnum". Before blending with the latest vintage for consistency, this "reserve wine" is deliberately kept lightly sparkling because the carbon dioxide gas, which creates the bubbles, acts as a preservative. Bollinger is the only champagne house to do this and one of the few not to sell champagne in magnums.

Looking at what's on the shelf, the millennium magnum is something of a hit-and-miss affair. I was disappointed, for instance, with the two white burgundy magnums on offer at Waitrose: one a dull bourgogne from Boisset, the other a mediocre example of chablis from the normally reliable Chablisienne co-op. Why pay pounds 15.99, when for a penny less, you can have two bottles of the 1998 St Veran Domaine de Curis from Louis Jadot?

To make up for it, the 1991 Cosme Palacio Tinto Rioja (pounds 19.95, Waitrose; Oddbins Fine Wine have the 1989, pounds 24.99, and 1992, pounds 19.99) is not just a splendid-looking creature in its own right, but deliciously smooth with a mature liquorice and aniseed spice bouquet and a rich, velvety texture and smoky maturity. More youthful but also intriguing is a nice, rustic red burgundy from the Cote d'Or, a 1997 Gevrey Chambertin (pounds 29.99, Tesco).

Penfolds have made two special magnum bottlings, both of which offer oodles of fruit flavours. First, the blackberryish 1997 Penfolds Koonunga Hill Shiraz/Cabernet (pounds 12.99, Safeway, Majestic, Wine Cellar, Oddbins - coming soon), and second, the spicy, rich 1998 Penfolds Bin 2 Shiraz/Mourvedre (pounds 13.99, Tesco).

Magnums of fizz make great gifts. My vote for best value is the new Jacobs Creek Chardonnay/Pinot Noir Brut (pounds 12.99, Waitrose; pounds 13.99, Co- op), which delivers an almost champagne-like biscuity character. Piper Heidsieck Champagne Brut (pounds 37.49, Safeway), made by the sparkling winemaker of the year Daniel Thibault, is a fine magnum with plenty of mature, toasty aromas and biscuity fruit flavours with what appears to be some reserve wine adding flavour. Thibault also had a hand in the super value, mouthfilling Waitrose Champagne magnum (pounds 27.95). Magnum of the year (so far) was the sublime 1985 Krug generously supplied by Penfolds' winemaker, Peter Gago, in spring sunshine at the Adelaide Oval. It doesn't get any better than that.

HOW BIG IS YOUR BOTTLE?

Capacity Bordeaux Champagne/Burgundy

(bottles)

2 MAGNUM MAGNUM

4 DOUBLE JEROBOAM

MAGNUM

6 JEROBOAM REHOBOAM

8 IMPERIAL METHUSALEH

12 - SALMANAZAR

16 - BALTHAZAR

20 - NEBUCHADNEZZAR

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