Wine List Value Plays: Magnums & Large Format

One of the value plays you might be missing on the wine list is magnums, those large format (and slightly intimidating) bottles.  They look great on display and clearly say that some group had a great time!

But it turns out they can be a great value on the wine list too.

A normal bottle of wine is 750 milliliters, or a little less than a quart.  There is a debate as to why that has become the standard size.  One theory is that it is exactly 6 services of 125 milliliters, typically served in an osteria in Italy.  Another group claims it goes back to the 18th century when they started storing wine in bottles and the largest practical bottle of the time was 750 milliliters.  Those theories aside, the EU declared 750 milliliters the standard bottle size in 1975.

While 750 milliliters is the standard, there are larger formats, all on multiples of the basic 750 milliliter bottle.  Magnums are 1500 milliliters (1.5 liters)  and double magnums are 3000 milliliters (3 liters) – and they go up from there!

Not all restaurants have magnum sized bottles, but those with a deep wile list will normally have a smaller selection of better wines in this size (and sometimes larger).  The good news about magnums is that the wine generally ages a bit slower so older vintages can still be fresh and delicious.  The downside for a restaurant is that they don’t turn as fast as normal 750 milliliter bottles.  That’s part of the reason for a smaller selection.

But this slow turn of older wines presents a golden opportunity for us wine consumers.  Here it is: Magnums aren’t generally priced at twice the cost of a similar bottle.  Now, this isn’t always true.  For top level wines, they have added the marketing premium for the special nature of a magnum and you may find a magnum is more expensive than two regular bottles.  You’ll have to look down the list a little to up and coming regions as well as 3rd and 4th growths. 

Let’s start with the obvious – you need a decent group to polish off a Magnum.  Even at the typical pour of 6 glasses to a bottle, you’ll have 12 glasses to work with.  My experience that 6 is probably the minimum to grab a magnum.  Your nice purchase isn’t so cheap when you leave a bunch of wine in the bottle.  But, if your group can get through a magnum – it’s potentially a nice value against buying by the bottle. 

If you have a larger group, and think you can drink through at least 2 bottles, make sure to check out the large format section of the wine list.  You might find a hidden treasure.

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