It can seem that size of a wine bottle doesn’t matter, but often bottle size can have significant effects on the way wine tastes.
The easy thing of course would just be to make every bottle exactly the same shape and size, but in reality, there are some quite notable differences between them, and for good reason.
This article gives an overview of how these differences in shape and size can affect the wine within a bottle.
Bottle size and the maturation of wine
One of the most important differences in bottle sizes is the effect that is has on the rate at which wine oxidises.
Oxidisation occurs when oxygen diffuses through the cork and into the bottle reaching the wine.
Although oxidisation helps wine maturing, this needs to happen slowly and gradually. If oxidization happens too quickly, wine can spoil.
The speed at which a wine oxidises is therefore a product of the proportion between the amount of wine in a bottle (as the oxygen diffuses evenly through the wine) and the surface area of the cork in contact with the outside air.
Although larger bottles of wine will have corks with a slightly larger surface area than smaller bottles, this difference pales into insignificance compared to the difference in the volume of wine held between a larger and smaller bottle. Therefore, as larger bottles have a higher proportion of wine volume compared to cork surface area, oxidisation is slower in these bottles.
This means that wines generally age slower and better when stored in large-format bottles compared to smaller ones.
You can roughly measure the oxidisation of wine through ullage.
The Importance of ullage for old wine bottles
Now, although bottle size does affect the quality of an aged wine, it is far too simple to say that a large bottle guarantees that a wine has matured in an optimal way.
Rather, a better way to eyeball the condition of a mature wine is through its ullage.
Ullage refers to the amount of space between the top of the wine in a bottle and the bottom of the cork.
Ullage can give a very good indication of how much a wine has oxidised.
This is because oxidisation is essentially a side effect of air diffusing into a bottle, and wine vapour diffusing out of the bottle.
The more this diffusion happens, more space will fill up between the top of the wine and the bottom of the cork, therefore increasing the ullage.
Again, because oxygen diffuses evenly within the wine, the size of ullage should be measured against the volume of wine within a bottle when judging the condition of a wine. This reinforces the point that larger bottles of wine can mature for longer than smaller bottles.
If a small bottle of wine has a large ullage, the condition of the wine is likely to be rather poor. However a larger bottle of wine with the same ullage can still be in good condition.
There is simply more wine in the larger bottle to be oxidised, so the rate of oxidisation is slower.
In addition, this slower rate of oxidisation and therefore the slower aging leads to wines acquiring more finesse and a more refined complexity with time.
How has the relationship between bottle size and oxidisation affected wine producers?
Historically, the shapes and sizes of bottle underwent a transformation once it was realised that bottling wine under cork created a near airtight seal.
This allowed wine to be aged a lot longer without spoiling.
Experimentation then occurred with bottle sizes, and soon the realisation occurred that the larger bottles not only looked more impressive, but the taste of the product within was better. It was a crucial step in the evolution of wine as we know it today.
In the past, wine bottles were usually very small, only containing 500ml of liquid. However as more mature wines became more popular, larger bottles became the norm in an effort to make the maturation process more gradual.
Larger format bottles have a further advantage over smaller bottles.
They tend to have thicker glass meaning that the contents within are much less likely to be expose to temperature fluctuations, and it is well known that a steady temperature will help a wine age at a more even rate. The thicker glass is a notable advantage of the larger format bottles, however they do however have a disadvantage at the same time.
A particularly large bottle may require a cork to be especially made and cut for purpose, and since such a cork was made by hand for a one-off occasion they tend not to fit as well as mass-produced corks.
An ill-fitting cork may lead to wine having greater contact with air, therefore increasing the rate of oxidation and undoing the benefits of having a lower air to liquid ratio in the bottle. It is worth noting that this only occasionally happens, and in 99% of cases larger bottles are better for storing wine in.
Therefore, as time went on, larger bottles became increasingly the norm in winemaking and storage.
Wine bottle sizes today
The differences in bottle sizes today can be quite significant.
The smallest bottle size in existence is entitled a half quarter and holds only 94ml. At the other end of the spectrum we have the Melchizedek, which holds 30 litres.
In terms of keeping, the smaller one may need to be consumed within 2 years, and the larger one would almost certainly be improving after 200!
Beringer have even created a bottle that contained 130 Litres, entitled The Maximus.
This was not a commercial bottle; rather it was created for a charity auction in 2001.
Watch Large Bottle Sizes in Video
What else affects the maturation of wine?
Not only the shape and size of the bottle affects how harmoniously and quickly a wine matures.
The storage/cellaring conditions also have a significant impact.
Heat and humidity are particularly important. A hotter environment will cause wine to evaporate through the cork more quickly.
This evaporation will increase the space allowed for oxygen to enter the bottle, therefore speeding the rate of oxidisation.
Humidity, on the other hand, is a good thing as long as it doesn’t exceed 75% to 80% to which point corks may start being degraded by mold.
If the air is humid the cork will remain moist, and the more moisture there is in the cork the less it will shrink. This reduces the amount of evaporation, therefore slowing down the oxidisation process and allowing a wine to mature for a lot longer.
Related Read about Storage Conditions for Aging Wine
This gues post was written by Didier Penine of Say it With Champers exclusively for Social Vignerons.
About the author: Didier Penine is a champagne enthusiast who’s company Say it With Champers, creates champagne gifts with Personalised Labels in the UK.