After many years working in and writing about the wine trade, it has dawned on me belatedly that the traditional bottle of vino is a completely inappropriate size. At 75cl, it’s not only too large but also too small. Perversely, though, both the magnum (150cl) and the half bottle (37.5cl) are invariably just right.
During a rare burst of sunshine, we had folk for lunch in the garden. There were six adults, one of whom wasn’t drinking. To set the afternoon rolling, I thought we’d start with a glass or so of chilled rosé and I brought out some Château Pontet Bagatelle, an absolute peach of a pink from Provence and a gorgeously sexy colour, too.
One 75cl bottle would have given us a large glass each; not nearly enough to keep us going. But if I’d opened a brace of bottles, Marina’s “please-don’t-overdo-it-again-darling” alarm would have rung and she’d have thought I was either being profligate or attempting to get our guests pissed unnecessarily early. If I’d opened just the one bottle, though, it would have looked mean, as if I was hoping my guests wouldn’t insist on my broaching the second.
As it was, I cracked open a magnum. It looked great on the table, drawing appreciative oohs and aahs from one and all, and somehow its fetching size managed to sneak under Mrs Ray’s radar. Added to which, of course, we polished it off with ease.
A couple of days later my old chum Tom Cave from Berry Bros brought as his mitbringsel a spectacular magnum of 2009 Pouilly-Fuissé, Clos de Quarts, from Olivier Merlin. It was gloriously plump and juicy, with a hint of minerality, and Tom, Marina and I made short work of it, setting the tone for a fine vinous weekend.
Tom swears that the magnum is the wine-maker’s preferred format, not only because it looks impressive but because the wine matures just that little bit more slowly and elegantly within it, thanks to the greater ratio of wine to air than in a normal bottle. In any event, his Pouilly-Fuissé was perfect for three thirsty adults.
Of course, there are even larger formats. Indeed, so thrilled with my Pontet Bagatelle was I, and so chuffed with how it went down with my guests, that I went straight back to www.FromVineyardsDirect.com and ordered myself one of their Imperials, a dramatic-looking thing containing some 600cl of wine; equivalent to eight regular bottles.
It looks amazing and I’m already hand-picking the team who’ll help me drink it, although I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do if it’s corked.
I also took the opportunity to grab some magnums of FVD’s 2009 La Reserve claret – a snip, given its quality, at just £19.65 a pop. I was also sorely tempted by the double magnums of 2008 Château Teyssier, a Grand Cru Saint-Emilion, available in wooden boxes for just £89.50 – equivalent to just £22.75 a bottle. And which would you rather receive (or, indeed, give) as a present: four normal bottles or one handsome beast of a Jeroboam in which the wine is maturing even more satisfactorily?
Not a complete lush, I am a devotee of the smaller formats, too. For example, my all-time favourite London restaurant, Galvin Bistrot de Luxe in Baker Street, serves several wines in the supremely punter-friendly pot Lyonnais.
At 46cl, this sits happily between the bottle and half-bottle and is ideal for the solo diner who doesn’t want to get too squiffy, or for two people who want to enjoy three wines between them without too much damage, either to liver or wallet.
The pot Lyonnais has somehow survived, whereas that most sublime of all sizes, the Imperial pint, has disappeared. At slightly over half a litre, it was particularly suited to champagne and – famously – was Sir Winston Churchill’s preferred size when quaffing his daily ration.
“Clemmie thinks that a full bottle is too much for me,” he once said. “But I know that half a bottle is insufficient to tease my brains. An Imperial pint is an ideal size for a man like me. It pleases everyone, even the producer.”
The Imperial pint was great for sharing, too, giving two drinkers a couple of glasses each when a half-would be mean and a bottle lavish.
Half-bottles still have their place, though. In fact, I’ve a half of Barbadillo’s exquisite, tongue-tingling, savoury Solear manzanilla chilling in the fridge as I write. Marina and I will have it as an aperitif at Glyndebourne tonight. And in the unlikely event of our not draining it, we’ll lob the rest into our chilled gazpacho starters.
Six of the best wines in odd sizes
2010 Casillero del Diablo Cabernet Sauvignon, 300cl (£42, Auriol Wines)
A hugely popular red in party size.
2011 Chateau Pontet la Rosee de Bagatelle, 150cl (£20.50, www.FromVineyardsDirect.com)
Finest rosé I’ve had in yonks.
Ruinart Blanc de Blancs Champagne, 37.5cl (£30, Jeroboams)
Sexiest champagne half.
Barbadillo Solear, 37.5cl
There’s no finer manzanilla kick-starter to the appetite.
2006 Dr Loosen Riesling Beerenauslese, 18.7cl (£11, Waitrose)
Small German sweetie.