I have been pondering what it is that makes me love a magnum. Derived from ‘magna’, the Latin word for ‘great’, I confess, for a long time, it merely meant ‘more’ to my mind. But I have come to realise that there’s an altogether better translation for this most majestic of formats, with plenty of evidence – of an empirical nature – that it actually equals finer wine.
Ponder, for a moment, what the word ‘magnum’ conjures in your own mind. There’s an artist’s magnum opus, their finest body of work; there’s Tom Selleck’s Magnum PI, a dashing detective at the wheel of a flame red Ferrari; or there’s the Wall’s Magnum, a choc-ice on a stick, a staggering innovation for which the legendary Sir Roger Moore once claimed the credit (though it actually originated in Denmark). All of these associations are positive, in their different ways, but wine served in magnum must surely be the greatest of them all.
Size really does matter. I have sought out the opinions of leading critics and most concur – though, the doyenne of them all, Jancis Robinson OBE MW, is admittedly more equivocal – but my own mind is made up, based on tasting the difference, time and again. I have been a wine collector for years, so my conviction comes, in part, from forays into my own cellar. But mostly it comes from the privilege of tasting wines that transcend anything stashed in my converted coal hole.
A recent such occasion was the launch of Dom Pérignon’s latest ‘Plénitude’ Champagne, the 2004 Vintage P2. A mature cuvée aged on its lees (spent yeast cells) and released only when it reaches a seemingly galactic level of depth and complexity, it is every bit as sublime as it sounds. More so, when paired with the culinary creations of Clare Smyth MBE, Three-Michelin-Starred chef proprietor of Core, an establishment so revered that it must surely have spawned a secondary market in grandmothers sold by those in pursuit of a table.
Incredibly, the finale to a night where abstinence had been distinctly absent was Dom Pérignon’s P2, 2002, served ’en magnum’. Two years older, yet seemingly a decade younger, as bright as a Coco Chanel button, with an ethereal charm and an extraordinary freshness. This magnificent magnum, not billed as the star of the show, had somehow stolen it.
Dom Pérignon’s chef-de-cave, Vincent Chaperon, explained the double bubble phenomenon this way: there is always a tiny amount of oxygenation through the cork, so the larger the bottle size, the greater the ratio of liquid to oxygen, meaning the ageing process is both slower and more stately. Magnums are also made from thicker glass, reducing the risk from lightstrike and fluctuations in temperature, which is why they tend to cost more than two individual bottles.
Magnums are still vanishingly rare on the shelves of most retailers, something that needs to change
The theory is certainly borne out by my own cellar experiments, with the same Bordeaux wine, in both regular bottle and magnum formats, purchased to lay down. The wines are identical, but the experience of tasting them is definitely different, the variance growing as the ageing process continues. En primeur buyers latched onto this long ago, which is why the magnum formats usually sell out first.
I was delighted to see, at the recent summer press tasting of The Wine Society, one of the best wines on show, a white Rhône blend, comes exclusively in magnum to be enjoyed for the best part of the next decade. That said, magnums are still vanishingly rare on the shelves of most retailers, something that needs to change.
Finally, there’s the fun factor. Provence rosé has cleverly exploited format sizing, emulating Champagne, but focused on pleasure, rather than ageing potential. Take AIX, which makes one delicious rosé in five different sizes, from a regular 75ml bottle – amusingly dismissed as ‘a tasting sample’ by its Dutch founder, Eric Kurver – through to the 15-litre Nebuchadnezzar, a proper whopper. It’s an impressive suite of sizes, but my favourite will always be the magnum, as it sets the tone for a perfect summer supper party.
As seriously as we take it, for most of us, wine is all about conviviality and there are few things more genial than opening a buggeringly-big bottle. So, in truth, that is ultimately why mine’s a magnum.
What David has been drinking…
- Giulio Ferrari, Riserva del Fondatore, 2007, TrentoDOC (specialist retailers, £150) From Trento’s Traditional Method pioneer, the sponsor of Formula 1 racing, its top cuvée, made from Chardonnay grown at 600 metres in the foothills of the Alps. Delicate meadow flowers and zesty citrus combine with toasted hazelnuts, white chocolate and flaky pastry to deliver an elegant, aged mountain wine that’s strikingly fresh.
- Penfold’s Bin 60A, Coonawarra, Kalimna Shiraz 1962 (approx $25,000 via collectors) Clang. Time to name drop, I’m afraid, with a very rare opportunity to enjoy a wine considered one of the best ever made in Australia, tasted at a Penfold’s lunch. From the ethereal aromas of violet, tobacco leaf, soft leather and sweet souk spice, the delicious hedgerow fruit still makes its presence felt on the palate, amidst a chorus of tertiary hallelujahs. If heaven exists, they surely serve this.
- Vasse Felix, Semillon Sauvignon, 2021 (£12 at Tesco) Just a little more affordable, this Aussie ‘take’ on white Bordeaux is incredible for the price. Organic, fresh and zesty, with faintly tropical fruit and cool minerality, it screams for seafood.