The standard wine bottle (750 millilitres, as indicated by law on the label) is, it’s nice to know, pretty much the same size as the early hand-blown bottles. The size of those ones, it is often plausibly claimed, were determined by the capacity of your average glassblower’s lungs.
Whether you regard the standard bottle as happily suited for one person at a sitting, just right for two, or an irritating amount designed to degenerate when you drink a bottle over a week – well, that depends on you, of course.
Smaller bottles have their place. It’s a great pity, really, that so few local wines come in half-bottles (apart from dessert wines, and they’re difficult enough to sell even in that format). Some port-style wines (Axe Hill, for example) come in 500ml bottles, and that is useful for wines that most of us definitely (I’m being modest here) don’t want more than a glassful or two of.
Unfortunately bottling costs are pretty much the same for half-bottles, so they can’t sell at half the price, as customers expect. And they tend to require special bottling equipment which most cellars with a bottling line do not possess. Nonetheless, I think it regrettable, and a missed sales opportunity, that more serious local table wines are not available in smaller formats in these days when so many people are cutting down on what they drink, perhaps especially at restaurants. Half-bottles in restaurants could be a great blessing.
Conventional wisdom has it that the size of the bottle is important for wines designed for long ageing. Half-bottles of fine Bordeaux, for example, are usually sneered at – but I not many years ago had two half-bottles of La Mission Haut Brion 1966, which both offered some of the most miraculously wonderful glassfuls I’ve ever had. And the half-bottle of Zonnebloem Cabernet Sauvignon 1959 at Michael Fridjhon’s old wine tasting earlier this year (as reported here) was in amazing shape
But the same conventional wisdom (with a bit of inadequate or assumed science on its side, relating to the relative potential for oxidation of the different sizes), says that the bigger the bottle the better. The commonest big bottles around are magnums – a mere twice the size of the standard, and many serious local wines are available in such sizes, if you bother to enquire. Locally, however, a range of larger format bottles is to be seen at the Kanonkop tasting room – they are one of the few Cape producers to regularly bottle in big, even enormous, formats.
If you want to plunge in and explore any aspect of wine at its more splendidly deep end, however, hang about in Cape Town and soon enough Joerg Pfuetzner, wine impresario extraordinaire, is going to cater to vinous wishes you didn’t know you had. At a price.
As with large bottles. Because large bottles are not only good vessels for maturing wine in, but there is, somehow, something inherently festive about opening them Inspired by an apparently successful annual event in Germany, Joerg’s Fine Wine Events business is organising a three-day event from 26-28 August at the Cellars Hohenort hotel in Constantia, with amazing wine in big bottles. It’s called (what else?) The Big Bottle Festival. One can only hope the incidence of cork taint is zero – especially with the nine-litre bottle (called a Salamanzar in the biblical language of these grandiose formats) of 1995 Domaine du Pegau Cuvée Laurence Châteauneuf du Pape.
That’s the biggest, to be served at a fine wine dinner at the Greenhouse restaurant (a snip at R1750 – oh, it’s enough to make a poor man weep!), but there are also Rehoboams and Jeroboams of great German, Portuguese and French wines (and even an Australian for those with odd tastes).
That Friday dinner is preceded by one earlier in the evening devoted to blanc de blanc champagne out of magnums (1.5 litres) and jereboams – though I’m reliably informed (by Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion no less) that any size larger than a magnum in champagne is usually “to favour publicity rather than wine quality (sizes larger than a magnum tend to be filled with wine made in smaller bottles)”. R1250, if you’re interested.
And on the Saturday afternoon is South Africa’s turn (the cheapie event at just R450) – a number of top locals serving their wines out of large-format bottles, the walk-round tasting accompanied by food from some decidely fancy local chefs.
And if you haven’t had enough, or spent enough, next morning is a champagne breakfast. Lots more big bottles. I’m not only envious, but exhausted just writing about it all. You can find all the details on the Big Bottle website.
Where Pfuetzner finds all these bottles, and the energy to put them all together, and the self-control (I know him a bit, you see) to leave them unopened till the big day, is all somewhat beyond me.
Alongside is a picture of Joerg draining the dregs of a standard size bottle, a fairly characteristic pose. He’s one of the few people I know with sufficient physique and drinking capacity to do similarly with a 9 litre bottle. If he does so at this party, I hope someone will be sober enough to take an unblurred photo of it.