Big Bottle Collecting: The Case for Magnums

© Cory Baldwin

For wine lovers, the bigger the better.

On a recent night near Lincoln Center, I found Michael Madrigale (pictured below) beside his bar, humongous empty bottles displayed along it like trophies on a mantle. He was cradling a 3-liter bottle of 1990 Joseph Phelps Backus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. He poured me a glass. It smelled as bright as cranberries, and it tasted fresh, too, with just a bit of bell pepper and loads of spice, its chewy tannins and acids intact. I would have never guessed that this spry wine was nearly a quarter-century old.  

Since 2009, Madrigale, the wine director at New York City’s Bar Boulud, has been helping his clientele drink better wine by opening oversized rarities and pouring them by the glass. He’s one of a cadre of wine experts who adore big bottles: magnums that are double the size of regular bottles, 3-liter double magnums, 4.5-liter jerobaums, all the way up to the Nebuchadnezzar—at 15 liters, it’s the equivalent of 20 bottles of wine. Pros like Madrigale believe that, for aging potential and sheer wow factor, big bottles are better.

“The size signifies that this is not the average night, not the average wine,” says Madrigale. “It’s something extraordinary. We all need that sometimes.”

The Phelps that Madrigale was hugging had a backstory—something like this was not a wine you come across every day, and Madrigale, a seasoned bidder, had sniffed it out at an auction. “David Best Wishes” was scrawled in pen on the label; like many magnums, the bottle had been gifted, maybe even from the producer to a friend.

“One of the best parts is just being the hunter. It’s fun drinking, but it’s also fun getting. It’s that male thing, that primal caveman thing. I’m hunting the ox,” he said. And he loped off to share his quarry with a table of newcomers.

“Lizard brain” as Madrigale says big bottles are, it’s not just males who enjoy them. Jessica Certo directs the all-female wine staff at the Manhattan location of Del Frisco’s Steakhouse. On a night this past October, Certo and her team were presiding over a gleeful and slightly soused house. It was the occasion of Del Frisco’s annual Magnum Bash, a fête thrown for regulars who have a thing for size.

I was seated at a table with a trio of guys who were slicing through T-bones and nursing a magnum of La Chapelle de La Mission Haut-Brion 2009. A ‘second-growth’ wine made from younger grapes, it tasted of barn, earth, ripe red berries. I know this because, even though we had all just met, they poured me a glass. That’s the thing about Magnum Bash, and about magnums altogether. It’s all about sharing—and showing off.

“Maybe the magnum says ‘Yes, I can.’ Maybe, ‘Look at me: I’m cooler and bigger.’ It’s a statement piece,” says Certo. And it’s made for big get-togethers.

“When you bring one to a party, more people get to try the wine, and the presentation is really cool,” says Geoff Kruth, chief operating officer of the Napa-based Guild of Sommeliers. “The bottle stands out, especially when you’re sharing an old wine that’s been in the cellar awhile.”

That’s because, wine geeks agree, bigger bottles age more gracefully. “Oxygen is the enemy of wine,” says consultant Tim Kopec of Private Cellar Selections. Though he insists that “there is no scientific proof,” even he’ll agree with the argument that the bigger the bottle, the less the ratio of oxygen to wine in it, and the better the prospects are for its aging.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, says Dr. Stephen Boulton of University of California at Davis’ Department of Viticulture and Enology, there are some “indisputable knowns” supporting the common belief that magnums age more slowly. “Temperature fluctuation causes wine to expand or contract in the bottle, which causes pressure in head space,” the gap in the bottle’s neck between the wine and the cork.

“Gases move out of the cork then, and when the wine cools down, the reverse happens. Air is 20% oxygen. As it comes in through the cork, you begin to get oxidation reactions,” explains Boulton. “If there’s not as much of a temperature fluctuation, there isn’t as much oxygen movement in. And bigger bottles are less sensitive to temperature fluctuations. It’s like a big brick and little brick. If you put them both out in the sun, the big brick will stay a lot cooler than small brick, because there’s less surface area to volume.”

So winemakers tend to bottle wines meant for aging in magnums. The venerable California producer Heitz Cellars, for instance, only offers particular cabernets in bigger bottles.  “We put our Martha’s Vineyard cabs from Napa and Trailside Vineyard cabs from Rutherford in magnums,” says the winery’s president Kathleen Myers Heitz. “These bigger-style cabernets are our flagship wines, and people tend to age them longer. The average drinker drinks wine within the first few years of purchasing it. They’re not aging it 20 or 30 years. Also, there’s a stepping stone as far as price and quality when you upgrade to these vineyard-designated wines.”

In other words, big bottles may be special simply because winemakers treat them that way. As Geoff Kruth puts it, “Producers usually put things in magnums that they’re proud of.”

Intrigued? Start buying. Here are nine tips from the experts on collecting big bottles:

1. GET COZY WITH A WINE SHOP: “A lot of magnums are pre-ordered, so if you’re going to a retailer, tell them you’re interested, and when they get offers, they’ll let you know,” says Kruth. “Develop that relationship.” Stores like Napa’s Acme Fine Wines or Crush in New York City offer a good number of magnums, and they mail order.

2. SIGN UP WITH WINEMAKERS: “Find some wine you like to drink,” says Certo, “and try to get on producers’ mailing lists where you’ll get offers for large formats.” (In fact, with some wineries, if you’re not on the mailing list, you’re not getting wine in any size bottle; membership gives you access.) Kruth has a few in-the-know suggestions: Arnot Roberts, one of California's best small producers, will release magnums of their single-vineyard Sonoma cabernets, directly to their mailing list on March 1. And the superb Dom Ruinart Champagne is set to release magnums of their 2004 vintage to members soon, too. 

3. CONSIDER HIRING A PRO: Says Kruth, “A consultant may be likely to know what wine to look for, and when those become available in magnums, how to get them.”

4. AVOID AUCTIONS UNLESS YOU KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING: “It’s like Las Vegas,” says Madrigale. “They’re pouring wine, you’re getting drunk, and the next thing you know, you’re putting your paddle up. If you’re not paying attention, you can end up paying more than retail”—for a wine that could turn out to be a fake.

5. GO FOR LONGEVITY: “Collect things that have a reputation for standing the test of time: California cab, Bourdeaux, Rhône, Italian reds, white Burgundy. Riesling, too, has a great track record,” says Certo.

6. EXPECT TO PAY MORE: “Because producers make so many less magnums, they will sell them at premium,” says Kopek. “Will the magnums escalate in value at a faster rate than singles? That depends on the market at the time it comes for you to sell.”

7. GET BUBBLES: “A magnum of champagne,” says Madrigale, “is sexy as hell.” Kruth agrees that with a regular-sized bottle, “There’s never enough champagne.” But he cautions against going bigger than magnums. “Champagne is not fermented in a very large format but, rather, transferred into it,” says Kruth. It’s a process that risks oxygen contact and a loss of the pressure that makes the wine sparkle. “So you’re dealing with diminishing returns after magnums.”

8. STORE SMART: “Magnums won’t fit in regular banks,” says Kruth. “So they’re not worth collecting if you don’t have proper storage. You need proper temperature and a rack that will support it.” Professional storage facilities, Kopek cautions, won’t take a lone magnum, “so you need to conjoin them in a six-magnum box.”

9. KNOW HOW TO POUR: Magnums and double magnums handle like 750s. After that, you need some chops. “You don’t want to mix up sediment,” says Kopek, “so you have to pour very gingerly.” He lists three methods: syphoning with a hose; decanting in one long pour while a partner swaps out decanters beneath the flow; or using a special tripod cradle, which holds and tilts the bottle as you pour.

10. CELEBRATE: “If you’re gifting, the bigger, the better,” says Kopec. And magnums are perfect for seasonal cheer. “This past Sunday,” he continues, “I was with a group of friends. Someone brought a 3-liter grand cru Burgundy. It was the ideal thing to do. Everyone was gearing up for holidays, everyone so titillated, and it tasted great.”