Size Matters

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  • By Brett Chappell
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Size Matters

Sometimes a bottle of wine is just a bottle of wine…but size does matters

Sometimes a bottle of wine is just a bottle of wine…but size does matters 

In the mid-1600's, glass bottles began to be manufactured for use in everyday, albeit, upper-class life.  What the Mesopotamians had invented, and the Romans had used, the British brought into mass production.  Before glass bottles were used for wine, wine was shipped and dispensed from either amphorae or barrel.  Neither are particularly easy to hoist over the dinner table. The first modern era glass bottles were purchased by the upper crust and often marked with a familial seal.  The bottles varied in size so it was originally illegal in Britain to sell wines by the bottle. One took one's personal bottles to the wine merchant to be filled.


Industrialization put an end to gross variation, and current wine bottles were born. The British standard bottle was based on a 1.25 imperial pint. There was still some variation, enough that the EU began to enforce standardization in the 1970's.  These are the most common uniform sizes standing today. 

Vol. Litre # of Glasses # Standard Btls Name
Bordeaux Champagne/Burgundy
.187 1 .25 Split Split
.375 2.5 .5 Half/Demi Half/Demi
.750 5 1 Standard/750 Standard/750
1.5 10 2 Magnum Magnum
3 20 4 Double Magnum


4.5 30 6


6 40 8 Impériale Methuselah
15 100 20 -- Nebuchadnezzar

Two questions stand about these sizes:

What does bottle size mean to the buyer/drinker? For starters, smaller formats are usually proportionally slightly pricier than their standard (750 ml) brothers. Yet each size has a place at the table. Splits are great for convenience at picnics, airplanes, single drinkers, and breakfast. Wines found in this format are normally inexpensive, although a few larger Champagne houses bottle in this size. Halves are great for an early or late course at the dinner table where the wine served with the entrée would not be a compliment. At a dinner for two, the host may want to serve a glass Chablis with a fish course where the Bordeaux for the entrée. Restaurants make great use of half bottles for a table of two or three. At four people, use a standard bottle.

More than four at table at a simple two course meal? Here's where a magnum of a favorite wine works well. A magnum's ten five-ounce glasses translates to two drinks per person over an evening. Guests are impressed when they are see a non-mass marketed wine on your table. The perceived difference between a magnum and a 1.5 liter is often the wine is in the bottle.

1.5 liters are great for the party where what one drinks is secondary to having a drink. Increasingly larger formats are exponentially more impressive. A Rehoboam of Côte de Nuits has more visual impact than three magnums of Gevrey-Chambertin.
What does bottle size mean to the wine itself? Rule of thumb – smaller bottles age more quickly. In a both half and a standard bottle, while the ullage, or amount of air found in a bottle, are approximately equal, the wine amount varies. Ergo, proportionally there is more oxygen interplay in a small bottle and the wines oxidizes more rapidly. Drink smaller bottles younger. Larger bottles age more slowly. Bordeaux sees up to an Impériale or 8 bottles as viable for aging due to the long lived nature of the wine.
Magnums are considered the optimal size for Champagne storage; oxygen interplay here is near perfect. In Champagne, formats larger than magnum are usually filled from smaller bottles. This movement of the wine saps the wine of some mousse. Not good. But, when one throws a bachelorette party for 200 of her closest friend at the strip club, and needs a half glass each for a toast, rest assured that Nebuchadnezzar’s size will be remembered long after the poor quality of his dance moves are forgotten.


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