Bill’s Best Bets – December

This holiday season:  Go Big!
by Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

Bill Zacharkiw

I was looking through some old photos the other day and one in particular caught my attention. It was taken maybe 10 years ago, and it was of a Thanksgiving meal with a dozen or so friends. We were seated around a long, wooden table, raising our glasses to the camera. And on the table were six identical bottles of Bordeaux. But what caught my eye was the size of the bottles. They were big, they were magnums.

A magnum is a double bottle, holding 1.5L of wine. And I’m a big fan. Many of the most memorable wines that I have drunk have come from a magnum. I was lucky enough to taste a glass of a Veuve Cliquot which was put in its magnum in 1953: an absolutely spectacular wine that still had a ton of freshness despite being over 50 years old. One of my greatest white wine experiences was a 1996 magnum of Chablis, La Moutonne, that I drank in 2008. The wine was at its apogee: an almond-type nuttiness combined with green apples. Fresh, flavourful and rich. With a salmon tartare, sprinkled with sesame, it was mind-blowing.

Magnums are considered the ideal bottle size for aging wine. How wines age is not completely understood, but one factor that changes with the size of the bottle is the ratio of air to the quantity of wine. So while a magnum may hold twice as much wine compared to a standard 750mL bottle, because of its shape it does not have twice as much air between the bottom of the cork and the wine. To throw in a tech term here, this headspace is referred to as the ullage.

Bisol Crede 2012, Conegliano Valdobbiadene (1500ml)Pascal Doquet Horizon Blanc De Blancs (1500ml)

As white wines are more sensitive to oxygen than reds, magnums tend to be better for long-term cellaring. For red wines, the effects of this different ratio of oxygen to wine is less noticeable in the short-term, but over the long haul, personal experience has shown that the magnum is again the bottle size that allows for the most balanced and best aging of the wine.

But not everyone cellars wines. The reason I’m talking magnums now is for another reason. We are heading into the heart of the holiday season, when we often find ourselves gathered around the dinner table with family and friends. And maybe it’s because they are rarer, and people don’t often see them at their dinner table, but whenever I bring out a magnum, the reaction is always the same. It adds a definite “wow” element to the evening.

So if you are looking to give a bottle of wine as a gift to someone who has, or is starting a wine cellar, think “big.” As most people don’t collect magnums, your generosity will stick out because of its rarity and when they eventually do open up the bottle, there’s a good chance you will be remembered for your gift. So give one to your boss. 🙂

But even if it is simply a question of finding a wine to serve to a gang, a number of excellent wines are available in magnum which can be enjoyed right now, and they aren’t that expensive. So rather than buying two bottles, show up for dinner with a magnum, it’s a bottle that has “party” written all over it!

Descendientes De J. Palacios Pétalos 2011, Bierzo (1500ml) Château De Chamirey Mercurey 2012 (1500ml) Bersano Costalunga Barbera d'Asti 2010 (1500ml)

The one thing to consider when buying a magnum is whether it’s for immediate drinking or for the long-term. Sparkling wines are definitely “drink now” purchases and if you want Champagne, Pascal Doquet’s Blanc de Blancs will rock both your palate and a plate of raw oysters. For those without a Champagne budget, go for a mag of the 2012 Crede from Bisol. It’s always one of the better Proseccos on the market.

Need a red for turkey dinner, complete with cranberry sauce and all the fixings? For $32.30, Bersano’s 2010 Barbera-d’Asti Costalunga is as much a bargain in magnum as it is in a standard 750mL. If your taste is more for pinot noir, then the 2012 Mercurey from Château de Chamirey is great value for its $64 price tag. And if you would like something more exotic, Alvaro Palacios’ 2011 Petalos is a great example of the mencia grape.

If you want more torque, Quebec-born Nathalie Bonhomme’s 2012 El Bonhomme brings lots of fruit and power for $39. And for something a touch more modern, a real crowd pleaser is the 2010 Celeste from Torres. If you want something with a bit of age, then Ijalba’s 2008 Rioja should do the trick, and all for $47.

As I said, magnums make great gifts, especially for those who collect wine. One of my favourite producers from Italy’s Piedmont is the co-op Produttori del Barbaresco. The 2009 Ovello Riserva is already drinking well, but will easily hold for another 5-10 years.

El Bonhomme Valencia 2012 (1500ml)Torres Celeste Crianza 2010 (1500ml)Ijalba Reserva 2008 (1500ml)Barbaresco Riserva Produttori Barbaresco Ovello 2009 (1500ml)Castello Di Nipozzano Mormoreto 2011 (1500ml)Domaine De La Vieille Julienne 2010
For longer aging, the 2011 Mormoretto from Castello di Nipozzano will easily get better over the next decade. Another wine built to last is the 2010 Châteauneuf-du-Pape from Domaine de la Vieille Julienne. Silky, densely textured and with a great story to tell – you simply need a bit of patience.

Happy holidays folks,


“There’s enjoyment to be had of a glass of wine without making it a fetish.” – Frank Prial

Editors Note: You can find Bill’s complete reviews by clicking on any of the highlighted wine names or bottle images above. Premium subscribers to Chacun son vin see all critic reviews immediately. Non-paid members wait 60 days to see newly posted reviews. Membership has its privileges; like first access to great wines!

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