Pop the cork on a Balthasar, Nebuchadnezzar or Methuselah and you can imbibe from bottles of biblical proportions. Beyond the standard 750ml, bottles come in a variety of volumes, and though some of these less conventionally sized vessels are primarily for show, others serve a more practical purpose.
The Melchizedek is the monster of the wine bottle world, which, with a volume of 30 litres, is equivalent to a staggering 40 standard bottles. With dimensions that require a stepladder for its unstoppering and a strongman to pour, it's too unwieldy for most tables and is consequently a rare beast indeed.
However, one was uncorked last year on our shores when Glengarry ceremoniously opened a Melchizedek of Drappier Carte d'Or NV Champagne. This super-sized sparkler was one of a series made for a regular customer of the Champagne house, who requested increasingly large bottles for his birthday party each year. It was also special in that its second fizz-inducing fermentation also occurred in this brute of a bottle, rather than being decanted from smaller bottles as is the way with most sparkling wines above Jeroboam (3l).
But big bottles aren't solely for showing off with in front of your friends, as when it comes to wines to cellar, size does matter, appearing to affect the rate that wines age. This variation could well occur due to levels of oxygen present in a bottle's headspace - responsible for ageing the wine - being relatively similar across all bottles despite the different volumes of wine they hold. The ratio of oxygen to wine is therefore less in larger bottles, which may be why they age more slowly.
This makes Magnums prized by many collectors. Twice the volume of a 750ml bottle, empirical evidence also suggests the wine within them ages more gracefully and having had some opportunities to compare the same mature wine from both a magnum and standard bottle myself, I've universally preferred the wine in the larger format.
Small can also be beautiful though, and it can certainly assist with quality when it comes to wines that need to be consumed quickly. One example is fino and manzanilla sherries, whose strength makes it hard to get through a standard bottle in one sitting, but once open still needs to be treated like an unfortified wine. A smaller bottle makes it more likely that it will be drunk when it's in its fresh prime.
Smaller sizes can also be a useful alternative when smaller or single serves are required, such as on aeroplanes and by people who can't get through a whole standard bottle. These are still relatively rare in New Zealand, with Mission Estate one of the few wineries offering bottles of more diminutive dimensions following its recent launch of a 500ml size in response to research which highlighted New Zealand's ageing demographic, smaller family units and more health conscious consumers.
Why 750ml became the standard bottle size is not entirely clear. However, some surmise that this was the average capacity of the lung of the glassblowers, who with a single breath created the bottles of yore which ranged between 600ml to 800ml. This became standardised to a "fifth" bottle - one-fifth of a gallon, equivalent to 757ml - before Europe opted for the similar 750ml metric measure that is now the general standard.
As the rationale behind this standard size would appear to be quite arbitrary, it would be nice if wine drinkers had more choice in the size of the bottles in which we buy our wines. .. even if few of us would opt for the mighty Melchizedek.
LESS IS MORE
Mission Estate Winery Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc 2011 $9.99-$12.99 (500ml)
Mission Estate recently launched its Hawkes Bay syrah and this Marlborough sauvignon blanc in this four-glass size. This handy bottle contains a fresh, mouthfilling sauvignon with bright notes of green herb and gooseberry. (From New World.)
Lustau Manzanilla Papirusa Sherry $24.06 (375ml)
Given the lightest styles of sherry have a limited life once opened, bottling something in a smaller format like this delicate manzanilla - with its tangy salty palate, notes of almond and savoury core - means it can be finished in a more timely fashion. (From Caro's, Fine Wine Delivery Company, The Village Winery and selected fine wine stores.)
A LOT OF BOTTLE
Champagne Drappier Carte d'Or NV $72.90 (750ml), $155 (1.5l), $770 (6l)
While the Melchizedek of Drappier's Carte d'Or was quaffed by Glengarry customers late last year, the Carte d'Or is still available in some larger sizes. Sampled from the standard size, it's an elegantly light, dry and fresh Champagne with notes of apple pastry. (From Glengarry.)