Buyers’ Guide to VINTAGES Nov 14, Part Two
Super-Sized and the Best of the New World
by Sara d’Amato, with notes from John Szabo MS
Whether you saw it coming or not, the holiday entertaining season is upon us and with this comes some pretty fierce marketing directed at you, consumer. The LCBO and VINTAGES is now committed to convincing us to purchase premium products, and in this release, large format bottles are pushed. VINTAGES is featuring a “simple solution for elegant holiday entertaining: Ten favourite high quality wines in large format bottles.”
Given that the cost of a magnum is often significantly more than double the price of the same standard format 750 ml bottle, is it worth it? To answer that question, it is worth considering what is in the bottle and your intentions for its uses. For those of you, like most, who don’t have a great deal of experience with larger formats, our interaction is usually in the form of imposing bottles at the entrance of restaurants, aiming to impress. Their novelty factor makes us look but the fear of a hefty price tag makes most of us stay away.
It is an indisputable fact that large format bottles make a show-stopping impression. Open a large bottle at any dinner party and it is sure to make for a memorable evening. That dazzle alone is worth an extra buck or two, no? But is the industry just pulling the wool over your eyes or should premiums for large formats not sway your investment?
To answer the question of why they cost so much I spoke with Marlize Beyers at Hidden Bench winery in Niagara who has a good breadth of experience with bottling both magnums (1.5 L) and 3 L bottles (sometimes called Jeroboams, or more prosaically, double magnums). She says: “First, we only consider wines that are age-worthy to go to large format, usually single vineyard pinots and chardonnays from outstanding, cooler vintages. We do not release these wines for at least 2 years after bottling, so there is a storage cost involved, they take up a lot of room.” In addition, the packaging material is significantly costlier, for example, glass for magnums are 4.2x more expensive than a standard glass bottle, corks to match the wider diameter are 9.7x more and labels are 16.8x more expensive due to unique size and small runs.
Because the large format bottles are too large to fit onto a regular bottling line, Beyers needs a week or more to transfer the wine (for just over 500 bottles) to kegs after which they are filled by hand. Everything must be done manually in a smaller scale winery. “To conclude,” says Beyers, “it takes tremendous time, effort, dedication, labour and detail to bring these to fruit and that is why they are worth more.” And although the costs for large format bottling are less for a commercial-scale winery, they are still significant.
But does it taste better and does it last longer? The prevailing opinion is that magnums age more slowly and perhaps result in a greater degree of harmony in the long-term than do smaller formats. The physical explanation for this is that the amount of space between the level of wine in the bottle and the bottom of the cork, known as the ullage, is roughly the same in various size bottles but the volume of wine is significantly different. Therefore, more oxidation would occur in smaller formats than in larger formats. More oxidation leads to more rapid ageing. However, whether such a small amount of oxidation makes a difference is inconclusive. In addition, often times the neck opening is slightly larger in a large format bottle so the difference in oxygen contact may not be that significant. Slower oxidation through the cork may also have an impact, but currently this is more of a hypothesis than a conclusively proven fact. Certainly, experiential and anecdotal evidence seems to point in the direction of slower ageing of large formats and if true, then the bottles clearly have more value in the long term.
Interestingly, all is different with Champagne bottles. We have more than anecdotal evidence and more science to demonstrate the intrinsic value of these wines in large formats. There seem to be significant differences in the flavour profile and in the way a Champagne magnum ages that is unlike any still wine bottling. The reason why has to do with a couple of key factors: carbon dioxide and autolysis. If you have ever used a gas preservation system like “Private Preserve” to keep your unfinished bottle of wine fresh, you’ll find that your wine will get a day or two of extra life. The spray is made up of carbon dioxide and nitrogen mix that settles on the surface of the wine preventing its exposure to oxygen. The same principle applies in Champagne where the natural carbonation will help preserve the wine from oxidation, slowing its development. Slower oxidation plus the high level of acidity characteristic to Champagne gives it a longer life in any format. Therefore, Champagne makes an ideal, age worthy addition to a collector’s cellar.
There is yet another factor that sets magnums apart. A degradation of yeast cells into “lees” – known as autolysis – also takes place differently in a large format bottle of Champagne. The explanation given by Nick Baker’s The Finest Bubble, a successful UK-based merchant of Champagne, is that the process “can take up to four weeks longer, but magnums also have proportionally more glass surface than [standard format] bottles, allowing more contact between the lees on the inside of the bottle and the wine. This results in magnums displaying much more roundness as the wine ages and crucially, much more complexity.” In short, a magnum of Champagne has a more extensive lees ageing process in a large format bottle resulting in a more complex wine.
A final factor in the value of a magnum is rarity. Like anything that is rare or scarce, a higher value will be attached to it. A winery may only choose to bottle in large formats in special vintages or for special clients but the runs in almost all cases are limited. A special bottling of your favorite wine may then be of interest to seek out from a collector’s standpoint just like that rare, signed baseball card.
As far as I’m concerned, the worth of a magnum is dependent on what is in the bottle. A large run of a large format by a large producer has very little intrinsic value – you will get wow factor for the bottle, but essentially the same product inside as two standard bottles. If the awesomeness of a large format is what you seek and can’t spend the big bucks, then the acquisition may just be worth a small additional cost. A large format bottling of Champagne, however, seems to be inherently different than standard formats and have value beyond the cost of their production. Thus, they may very well be worth the investment. If you collect, than a rare, large format bottling of your favourite wine is also worthy of your attention. As Marlize Beyers of Hidden Bench highlights, what makes it into these magnums are special wines, often from exceptional vintages that are naturally more age worthy. These large formats are a labour of love for small to mid-sized producers and they can make a very special part of your collection.
In any case, if you find yourself in possession of a magnum, be aware that they come with special needs. Some tips – chilling a white or sparkling wine must be irksomely done outside of the confines of a fridge, in icy water. Use two hands when pouring or decant into two standard size decanters. If you do not have room in your cellar for large formats and thus store them upright, make sure that are they regularly placed on their sides, propped securely, so that the cork stays fresh and moist.
Here are our top picks from this mini release of magnums. Unfortunately there are no whites or sparkling wines in this offering but there is a range of both affordable and collector-worthy bottles. We also offer recommendations on the new world portion of the VINTAGES release. Check last week’s recommendations to find the best of the old world.
Buyers Guide For November 14th: Large Formats
Masi 2009 Riserva Costasera Amarone della Valpolicella Classico Riserva, DOC, Veneto, Italy ($149.95, 1500mL)
John Szabo – This is precisely the sort of wine you want to have in magnum, one that will age for a very long time indeed. It’s still another 4-6 years away from prime enjoyment I’d suspect, but already shows terrifically richness, balance, and complexity. Masi is one of the undisputed masters of the appassimento genre. Best 2019-2036++.
Sara d’Amato – The quality of this Masi offering is no surprise as this top producer of Amarone is a consistent overachiever. The wine offers great poise and depth of flavour as well as the structural framework that will allow for masterful evolution over the next 5-10 years.
Domaine Du Vieux Lazaret 2012 Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhone, France ($84.95, 1500 mL)
Sara d’Amato – With a traditional feel, this wonderfully complex, fleshy and slightly lactic southern Rhone blend offers a great deal of bang for your buck. A deal at less than twice the price of a standard format bottle.
Santa Carolina 2008 Reserva de Familia Cabernet Sauvignon, Maipo Valley Chile ($37.95)
John Szabo – Here’s the best value going in this magnum feature, a nicely mature, savoury, herbal, earthy and balanced cabernet from Santa Carolina, hitting full stride now. Best 2015-2023.
Sara d’Amato – This well-priced magnum is ready to impress and perhaps the best value in this release. There is nothing pretentious about this approachable and gently matured cabernet from Santa Carolina.
Robert Mondavi 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley, USA ($70.95)
John Szabo – An excellent value in the rarefied world of Napa cabernet, Mondavi’s 2013 finds a comfortable balance between well-measured fruit and wood, and savoury-earthy components. Tannins are still grippy and angular, in need of another 3-5 years to smoothen out, but this hits all of the right measures in an elegantly styled cabernet. Best 2018-2033.
Sara d’Amato – A solid, dry and age worthy example of Napa cabernet with a tannic firmness that requires three or more years to resolve. A splendid addition to your cellar at a fair price.
Buyers Guide For November 14th: New World White & Red
Jost Vineyards 2014 Tidal Bay, Nova Scotia, Canada ($17.95)
Sara d’Amato – Although there are some great Canadian finds in this release, I am particularly enthusiastic about this bright, cheerful and playful blend from a pioneer wine producer of the east coast. If offers elegant notes of mineral and white peach along with a hint of effervescence that adds to its refreshing character.
Bachelder 2012 Saunders Vineyard Chardonnay, VQA Beamsville Bench, Niagara Peninsula Canada ($44.95)
John Szabo – This is one of the more refined and fine-grained, sinewy and linear chardonnays in the excellent Bachelder range, with gentle lees influence and salty finish. It’s showing nicely at the moment, but one of the intriguing features of Bachelder’s wines is their ever-changing character, revealing new facets with each bottle. It’s a wine to buy several bottles of to track its fascinating evolution. Best 2015-2022.
Stratus 2012 White, VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake Canada ($44.20)
John Szabo – The 2012 is one of the finest Stratus white blends to date, densely woven, creamy, honeyed, very far from the Ontario white wine paradigm and much more at home in some old world, warm climate region (southern Rhône white?). I really appreciate the depth and the extract, almost thick but not heavy. I’d like to see this again in another year or two when the masses of dried fruit will have subsumed and integrated with the non-fruit flavour. This should age well. Best 2017-2024.
Flowers 2013 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast, USA ($64.95)
John Szabo – Flowers remains a leader in the Sonoma Coast AVA, on the second ridge in from the Pacific in a decidedly cool slice of California. The natural vocation thus is to produce wines (chardonnay and pinot) of terrific precision and tension. This 2013 represents nicely: pure, fragrant and floral, gently reductive, succulent and savoury, salty and tight, but also generous and mouth filling, achieving a fine power-finesse balance. Best 2015-2023.
Rustenberg 2010 Buzzard Kloof Syrah, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – The Buzzard Kloof vineyard is located on one of the coolest sites of Rusternberg’s estate and produces a unique, peppery syrah that is terrifically compelling. The site is named after the Jackal and Steppe Buzzards that circle the thermal currents which rise above the ravine (kloof) adjacent to the vineyard.
Grand Vin de Glenelly 2009 Red, Stellenbosch, South Africa ($19.95)
John Szabo – Bordelaise doyenne May-Éliane de Lencquesaing (of Pichon Lalande) is behind the Glenelly Estate in Stellenbosch, so the class, balance and composure of this shiraz + Bordeaux varieties blend is no surprise. What is surprising however is the exceptional; this ticks all of the boxes of top wine. Best 2015-2021.
d’Arenberg 2012 The High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon, McLaren Vale, South Australia ($19.95) (943456)
Sara d’Amato – This highly acclaimed wine has been produced for four decades now and is sourced from the first of d’Arenberg’s vineyards (planted in the late 1800s) to be trained above knee height. The power and elegance offered here for under $20 is nothing short of impressive.
Strewn 2013 Canadian Oak Meritage, Niagara-On-the Lake, Ontario, Canada ($24.95)
Sara d’Amato – Although not a new product, Canadian oak is not widely used nor mass-produced and thus you may not be aware of its existence. This elegant Bordelaise blend is a lovely introduction to our tight-grained, homegrown oak that (arguably) some describe as adding a slightly spicy, maple flavour to wine. Regardless, there is freshness but not under-ripeness to this ready-to-drink offering from Strewn.
Stratus 2012 Red VQA Niagara-on-the-Lake, Canada ($44.20)
John Szabo – Stratus winemaker J.L Groux evidently had an excellent 2012 season, hitting the both this flagship red, as well as the white, out of the park. It’s an impressive Bordeaux style blend that would be equally at home in Tuscany, with its high-toned, floral and dusty-herbal red and black fruit, thanks in part to long hang time, and long ageing in wood to develop complexity. The style is unique to be sure for the region, but it works very well here. Drinking now, but better in another 3-5 no doubt. Best 2018-2025.
If you don’t already have your tickets for the 2015 Gourmet Games featuring, you are not too late! John and I will be your sensory guides through this great evening of food and fun. WineAlign members will get a $25 discount on tickets AND a $25 Special Gift Certificate. Click on the ad below for all the details.
From VINTAGES November 14th, 2015
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