And the Best Format for Champagne Lovers Everywhere
Notoriety and distinction are commonplace when it comes to champagne, and it’s no less true for the range of bottle types that house this liquid gold. Champagne is the only French AOC to formally recognize a collection of vessel sizes for its wines. The following table is a champagne bottle size guide and highlights the nine most common variations:
|NAME||VOLUME (L)||# OF BOTTLES|
|Half Bottle/Demi Bouteille||375 ml||1/2|
Beyond these, some sources discuss a selection of even larger champagne bottle sizes including the Solomon, Sovereign, Primat and Melchizedek/Melchior. There are, however, many discrepancies regarding these formats, but they are worth knowing about if only for their mythical statuses and racking in Tuesday Trivia points. Sally Easton, Master of Wine, does a great job of highlighting some of these inconsistencies on her blog WineWisdom in the notes following her own table:
“The CIVC does not include the Réhoboam in its list of sizes, saying it no longer exists for Champagne, though both the OCW  and the UMC do list it.
The Solomon has proved the most controversial to pinpoint accurately. Both the CIVC and the UMC (Union of Champagne houses) state it at 18 litres / 24 bottles. Other sources, not cited here, have the Solomon variously at 20 litres /26.6 bottles, or 21 litres / 28 bottles, but I’m inclined to go with the CIVC and the UMC.
Both the CIVC and the UMC deny the existence of the Melchior. The CIVC says ‘the Melchior was never used in Champagne. There is no record in the known archives.’ The OCW says the Melchior is 18 litres /24 bottles (the size of the Solomon, here), but does not specify this size for Champagne, so the 18 litre /24 bottle Melchior could yet be a correct size/name for a different region. But it’s clear there is no Melchior in Champagne.
The Sovereign is listed in the OCW as 34 bottles “in theory”, but direct communication with Taittinger, possibly the only producer to use this size, confirms it at 35 bottles.
The CIVC cites the Primat size above, but it is missing from the UMC list.
Part of the confusion arises because there are no specific rules for the larger formats as they are mostly created for special occasions (at very long lead-times).”
Bigger Isn’t Necessarily Better
There is something awe inspiring about large champagne bottles and that allure may give the false impression that they are better and more desirable than their less voluminous counterparts. But it’s actually quite the opposite.
Apart from being sheer headturners, large format champagne doesn’t have much going for it. These bottles necessitate a whole lot of extra glass for the making of their bottles, custom corks and enclosures, more space in producer and supply chain storage, and special shipping and transportation procedures. One can imagine how these factors amount to a much higher cost, not to mention the largest sizes typically call for special ordering. Additionally, there is so much pressure encased in these bottles that they require extreme care (or better yet, previous experience) when opening and no doubt will elicit the help of extra hands for pouring. If you’re feeling incredulous, consider the specs of a Nebuchadnezzar champagne bottle bearing a whooping 120 glasses of champagne: 84 lbs, 31” tall, hundreds of pounds of pressure per square inch, costing no less than $2,000 for anything you’d actually want to pour out of it. May the force — and your inheritance — be with you!
And there’s another important, perhaps most important, point about special format bottles. Champagne in any format larger than a magnum or smaller than a standard is not fermented or aged on the lees in that bottle. Standard practice is to produce the champagne in 750s and then transfer the wine, under pressure, to the designated special format. This has a few implications. No matter how attentive and careful the transfer process may be, this champagne is experiencing some level of additional oxidation. This affects its longevity and ultimately it won’t taste as fresh as a champagne that has spent the whole time in the same bottle. To sum it up, when it comes to large format bottles, they are super expensive investments that may ultimately prove to be lower in quality than the same wine in a standard champagne bottle size. There is, however, one exception…
The Magnum: Why You Should Love It
Okay, okay. So I’ve just totally squashed some of y’all’s dream to bust out a show stopping bottle of bubbly at next year’s reunion, BUT there is a silver lining to all of this and it comes in the form of a magnum. This bottle size is considered ideal for both collectors and dinner partyers alike. Here’s why:
A huge advantage that magnums have over the standard bottle size is their oxygen to wine ratio inside the bottle. Though mags are twice the volume, they have the same ullage (space between the bottom of the cork and surface of the wine) as 750s. What this means is that oxidation occurs much more slowly, rendering the wine fresher for longer and allowing its development over the years to happen more gradually.
One consideration for the aging of this format is that it will not fit in standard racks, so it’s necessary to plan ahead in terms of outfitting a cellar or storage space with proper containers. Magnums are common enough, though, that finding a storage solution through your local wine shop or online is pretty easy.
2. Integrity & Complexity
So we’ve just covered that the magnum demonstrates to be the best bottle size for the consumer’s cellar, but it also happens to be the best format for the champagne producers looking to make library wines as well. Magnums are the largest bottle size in which the whole production process of champagne can occur, meaning there is no transfer necessary. The champagne in a magnum not only retains integrity of its production and unique single-bottle identity, but its larger volume means that the secondary fermentation takes longer. This affords the champagne more time to develop autolytic character.
And that’s not the only way mags encourage complexity; the surface area of the glass is greater so when the lees settle for aging they make significantly more contact with wine. For champagnes that are aged on lees for many years, the aptitude of the magnum to support complexity cannot be dismissed. All-in-all, magnums, for both the producer and the consumer, host exciting potential to develop a champagne that is markedly unique even when compared to the same wine in a smaller bottle.
3. Serving Up Consistency
Even if you’re not someone looking to round out a champagne collection, but wondering about larger formats for entertaining, mags are still your best friend. Needless to say, champagne borders on effortless drinking, so when you’ve got more than a few people enjoying a bottle it’s safe to say it’ll disappear quickly. Queue magnums: they not only provide twice the amount of pours than standard bottles of champagne but also bolster consistency at the party drink table, dinner table, or sommelier’s station.
It is to be expected with fine champagne that there is some variation from bottle to bottle — this is actually a good thing as it signifies artisanship — but when you’ve got multiple of the same bottle open and being passed around, you don’t want small pours of each here and there to amount to something in the glass that’s not quite true to taste. The same goes for temperature and carbonation. If a handful of bottles are open and some initially poured from more than others, the serving temps and effervescence will vary significantly. Magnums offer the opportunity for a bit more control over these factors.
4. Value & Impress
Magnums are impressive and exciting without being excessive or opulent. They make folks experiencing them feel a little extra special but not ostentatious. This, of course, comes with a price. Just because they’re ideal in the wineworld doesn’t mean mags are immune to the additional costs of larger formats that were previously mentioned. They still require more material, space and care. So if you’re looking to purchase from a great producer, don’t expect some kind of bulk deal. Magnums will be more expensive than two 750s of the same champagne. There is a catch though. Because this format provokes complexity and is desirable for aging, it’s often that the wine inside is a selection from the best or highest quality barrels.
The scope of champagne bottle offerings may be seductive, but it would be wise for the conscientious consumer not to veer too far from the standard options. If you’re looking to take your champagne collection to the next level and have the space and wallet to invest, magnums are one-hundred percent the way to go. With most clientele focusing their attention on the standard bottle size, you can count on cellared mags not only being rarities on the market but their value appreciating steadily.