Does bottle size alone matter?

A magnum offers many benefits, but the reason most often advanced, according to Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine, is; ‘It is widely regarded as being the ideal size for bottle ageing fine wine, being large enough to slow the ageing process, but not so big as to be unwieldy, or unthinkably expensive (unlike some other large formats).’

Thanks to the greater volume of wine to container, a magnum should age more slowly than in a regular 750ml bottle. This was the theory put to the test at the recent SA Sommeliers Association tasting presented by Tinashe Nyamudoka, SASA member and Head Sommelier at The Test Kitchen. All the wines had been sourced from the producers; there were some surprising results.

Nyamudoka had us tripping over our own tongues with the first pairing, a white wine (apologies for lack of photos; my attention was on tasting and taking notes): one, a brilliant green-infused lemon gold; evolving but eye-catching; the other, a deeper shade of orange/gold, not nearly as brilliant and suggesting a much older wine. The appearance of each is confirmed in the glass. Generous floral, honeyed maturity, a richness of ripe, concentrated fruit, lengthened by fine, natural acid; everything in that first glass gives maximum pleasure. Chenin 2007 I wager with time still on its side.

The other showing some oxidation, a little honey and definite sweetness; still chenin, but less harmonious than the first wine. Surely this is bottle, the first a magnum?

Wrong on both counts! Number one is from a regular bottle, but closed with a screwcap, a combination no one thought of; number two is the magnum with a cork closure! The wine: Ken Forrester’s FMC 2007.

The cork was still in good shape, so I’m not sure why the magnum is so advanced. That said, wines under screwcap are recognised as ageing more slowly, in an ageworthy white wine vintage like 2007 especially so.

With the next pair, both garnet-toned ruby, one somewhat denser than the other, there are no tricks, it’s down to bottle size. Clearly in pinot territory, the first immediately exudes ripe red cherry, raspberry aromas; forthright flavours too, fresh, quite viscous and a sweet-fruited tail; not very harmonious at this stage. The other is more reticent, though its black cherry fragrance remains a true varietal indicator. An excellent balance between tannins and freshness match that of pure pinot fruit. What’s more, it finishes totally dry. Bigger format and younger wine go the majority guesses.

As we adduce, the order is first regular bottle, second magnum. Both are Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum Cuvée Cinema from the rain-affected, lighter 2014 vintage.
I was glad I kept both to try again later, as both changed to their advantage. The bottle gained in harmony with less apparent sweetness, while the magnum opened to reveal its elegance and charm; the latter would certainly benefit from decanting now and I believe has a better future.

David Trafford’s De Trafford Elevation 393 is traditionally cabernet-led with merlot, shiraz and cabernet franc. Don’t be surprised at 15%+ alcohol levels, usually a part of the balanced package, which also includes all new French oak. This combination worked much better for me in the 2001 magnum, a more mature looking, subtle and savoury wine than the rather green spikiness and sweet/acid discord of 2007 from the regular bottle.
Of the many interesting lessons learnt at this tasting, the one I came away thinking about for the umpteenth time is that a specific vintage is not the same for every producer; some will do better than others, even with the same variety or blends.

The 750ml Warwick Trilogy 2007 is a timely reminder. Cabernet-led partnered by the farm’s renowned cabernet franc and merlot, this 10-year-old flagship still boasts a strong ruby red hue, an array of ripe red fruits and spice broadened by harmonious oak. Good energy, suppleness as well as rounded tannin suggest it has plenty of time to go. Weirdly, 2009 ex magnum looks older; there’s complexity but less detail in the rich flavours; a big wine from many points of view, maybe it’s still going through the struggles of youth; given the wine’s track record, I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt.

Sommeliers and tasters at the SASA tasting

Two other magnums were poured without regular bottle partners: Klein Constantia Perdeblokke Sauvignon Blanc 2004. Evidently a cool climate sauvignon, I guess before the reveal, with eye-catching brilliance, ageing green bean characters but still plenty of fruit richness.

The magnum of Alto Cabernet Sauvignon 2000 induces a sense of wistful longing for reds that are neither over-ripe nor sweet. It’s ripe with good flesh, freshness, great supportive structure and length. A classically styled cabernet of yesteryear.

For younger tasters and sommeliers generally unversed in these different formats, closures and vintages, such an event offers an invaluable experience. It all goes towards building better wine service and understanding of our wines. Well done, SASA.

Decoration in the Ellerman House Wine Gallery, where SASA tasting was held
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