Halves at it
The half-bottle: good things in small packages
by David Marglin
One prominent local wine merchant responded to my request for good half-bottles
with a slight snicker. "I don't have any," he said. "Why would anyone want to
purchase any good wine in such a useless format?"
At first I thought he was kidding, but he was not. Still, he had a whole shelf
of half-bottles and, when pressed, did admit that they were "occasionally
useful in restaurants."
When people talk about a bottle of wine, they usually mean a 750-milliliter
bottle, the standard size for fine wine. Standard sizes are a modern-day
invention -- before Prohibition, most wine in this country (and in Europe) was
sold in large casks to local merchants, who would then sell the wine in
whatever containers they had around. (In bottles, if the wine was fine enough.)
A lot of folks would bring their own bottles to be filled. But recently -- say,
in the past 50 years -- the 750-milliliter format has become standard around
Many wineries don't produce half-bottles at all, but for me they're a godsend.
When I'm dining alone, a half-bottle is just perfect. Or when I need to try a
wine for review purposes-- again, I don't need a full bottle. Sometimes when
you're eating with someone at a restaurant, the main course will be meaty,
something that demands red wine, but the appetizers will be lighter, often fish
or something more delicate that calls for a half-bottle of white. And a bottle
and a half is a splendid amount of wine for two people to drink over the course
of a leisurely dinner.
Half-bottles also cause wines to mature faster. There are many theories about
how the size of the bottle affects aging,
but the gist is this: aging is a
function of air. If there's enough wine in the bottle to "absorb" the traces of
oxygen, even a proportionally larger amount of air won't cause it to age as
fast as a smaller bottle would. Bigger bottles such as magnums and jeroboams
have more liquid, and hence the wine in these "large format" bottles is
affected more slowly by air. Smaller bottles have less liquid, and therefore
will age faster, making them more approachable for reviewers and drinkers
alike. (Of course, this also means you can't hold them as long.)
Half-bottles, like large-format bottles, cost
proportionally more than their
750-milliliter counterparts, owing to the increased cost of the bottles and the
changes required in the bottling and labeling machines. So two half-bottles
will often cost you slightly more than one whole, just as a magnum always costs
more than two 750-milliliter bottles. Magnums are for collectors (indeed, some
serious collectors prefer to drink only large-format bottles of the best
wines); half-bottles are for wine drinkers.
But this doesn't make half-bottles a bad deal. Half-bottles tend to get short
shrift in retail stores (and they are buried at the back of many wine lists,
too), so there are bargains to be found. Wines that have appreciated sharply in
value may still hang around in half-bottles at the store, or linger on a
restaurant's list, because of neglect by customers. I have snagged some
beautiful white wines at Marty's in Newton and at Brookline Liquor Mart in
Allston simply by poking around in the half-bottle section. Another point:
since they're cheaper in absolute terms, half-bottles can allow wine fans on a
budget to try some great wines without having to break the bank. If you're
eating out and want to order a really interesting wine, $20 may not get you
much in the full-bottle range, but it will often get you something very
interesting in a half-bottle.
In general, wineries that produce half-bottles tend to be focused on selling
wines in restaurants. Such wineries want to make showcase wines, and they build
their brands by being included on wine lists. Although a few very top wineries
do not make any half-bottles, in general it is a sign of overall quality when a
winery chooses to bottle some of its wines in the 375-milliliter format.
So look around in wine stores and study those wine lists carefully, because
sometimes really good wines come in relatively small packages.
1995 Sierra Cantabria Rioja Crianza ($7.99, 375 milliliters). A clean
and fruity Spanish red, peaking completely. Lots of berry flavors, lots of
polish and finesse. A super value, great for summer, with spicy foods on the
barbie or even just burgers. Solid and sophisticated.
Gruet Brut NV ($7.99, 375 milliliters). A somewhat fruity sparkler, and
yet still plenty dry. Not a deep wine by any means, but great bubbles and fine
texture. Excellent with spicy foods, or as an aperitif. A good
-- from New Mexico, no less.
1997 Renwood Old Vines Zinfandel (Amador County, California, $9.99, 375
milliliters). High alcohol,
ample fruit, a touch of petrol on the nose and up
front. Not as classy or earthy
as some of the earlier Renwoods, but still a
very solid wine that will pair well with spare ribs, burgers, or sausages.
1997 Mercurey Premier Cru Domaine du Meix-Foulot ($14.99, 375
milliliters). Bright strawberry with quartz and some spice. A light, very
approachable red Burgundy, one for easy drinking. I like it with pork chops,
anything with a plum sauce (moo shu), or some Chilean sea bass. Gorgeous.
1998 Merryvale Estate Reserve Merlot Napa ($21.99, 375 milliliters).
Scrumptious. Major oak,
but also loads of black fruit, especially blackberry. A
wine big enough for a nice steak or any Chinese beef dish. You can drink it now
(it might need a half-hour of air), but this will improve with
age -- in 10
years it will be even tighter and more together.
David Marglin can be reached at email@example.com.
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