Wine matures better in bigger bottles

* Bouchard Finlayson winemaker Chris Albrecht comparing colour of wines poured from a regular bottle and from a magnum.

Magnum or not: do wines mature better in large format bottles? This was the theme of a tutored wine tasting at Open Door restaurant at Constantia Uitsig.

Bouchard Finlayson winemaker Chris Albrecht presented 10 wines in the regular 750ml format against the larger 1.5 litre magnum, the equivalent of two standard bottles.

In between tasting guests tucked into delectable canapes and made notes, comparing colour, aroma and taste.

Does the container have a bearing on the taste of wine? Since they are born, the juice of the vine comes from various sizes of green and black grapes. After harvesting they go through various containers, plastic, oak, concrete and stainless steel. At Belfield in Grabouw it’s stored in two large Italian ceramic vats.

Once the wine meets the winemaker’s approval it is bottled or bagged. Many turn up their noses at the idea of drinking wine from a papsak – and so did I until tasting wine at Rooiberg Winery in Robertson. They sell exactly the same wine in a box that they sell in bottles. And if you have not tried Du Toit’s cabernet sauvignon shiraz, it is worth a sip or two.

On a visit to Backsberg recently, tasting their extensive range, we bought a 2014 merlot and 2016 sauvignon blanc in plastic bottles. Part of their Tread Lightly range launched in 2010, the wines are exceptionally quaffable. How sad that these eco-friendly bottles have not been well received and are being sold at vastly reduced prices to clear stock. But, back to the tutored tasting and whether bigger is necessarily better.

Pouring wine of equal amounts from the larger and smaller bottles into two glasses, Chris tips the glasses to compare the colour. He says wine in larger bottles tend to last longer and a magnum is seen as the optimum for ageing wine. And if you know what you’re doing, larger bottles can resell for higher prices.

He says drinking from large bottles produces a better taste. “Because there’s more wine in the bottle and less ullage (empty space between wine and cork), it means a proportionately smaller amount of air in the bottle – which is what causes ageing (through oxidation),” says Chris.

Paying an extra premium is worth it. After all, the cork alone costs more than regular ones. All wine bottle closures admit a tiny amount of oxygen. The actual amount is the key to a closure’s performance. A typical cork will let in about one milligram of oxygen a year. This sounds like a tiny bit, but after two or three years, the cumulative amount can be enough to break down the sulphites that winemakers add to protect the wine from oxidation.

He adds that restaurants and wine merchants are stocking increasing amounts of their wine in magnum size.

As for looks, there’s something about a gargantuan bottle, it makes a statement, screams celebration, joie de vivre. It also offers value and winemakers tend to put their best end wines into large bottles, confident that they will mature well, demanding a premium.

The next tutored tasting is scheduled for Tuesday August 15 at Open Wine in Cape Town. The theme will be announced closer to the time. Book at info@bouchard or 028 312 3515.