You know the type: making a loud noise in a restaurant, bar or club, waving his magnum around in the belief that the size of the bottle is indicative of the size of his… well, you know the rest. He is, of course, wrong. Larger-format wine bottles — familiar magnum, jeroboam (four bottles, or six in Bordeaux), methuselah or imperiale — are not for show but serve a practical purpose for the patient connoisseur.
In short, the ratio of air in the bottle to wine decreases inversely as the volume of wine increases. This diminishes the oxidative process that occurs as the oxygen reacts with compounds in the liquid and thus slows the ageing process. Thus, wines in big bottles in the cellar will develop at a steadier pace (hence patience is required) but will not start to decline until later and then will do so more gracefully.
Only a dire emergency or extreme ignorance serves as an excuse to serve wine directly from a large-format bottle — if aged correctly it would certainly need decanting to remove the build-up of sediment and then the bottle would need to be rinsed and the wine double-decanted back. If the wine is too young to have thrown a sediment then it is too immature to be paraded around and should be returned to the cellar to grow up. Like the person waving it around perhaps.
Champagnes are a little different as most status-symbol size formats are actually filled from single bottles prior to sale because Champagne struggles to achieve the important secondary fermentation in bottles larger than magnum sizes. Indeed, it has been suggested that the loss of pressure and increased oxidation that occurs during this process can actually diminish the quality of the Champagne.
Armand de Brignac, producer of The Ace of Spades, which has taken over Cristal's role as preferred Champagne of clubland's flash pack, would doubtless disagree, having planned the gigantic Midas — all 30 litres (40 bottles) of it. Currently at the concept stage, it includes a specially designed litter to transport the monster to your table. Such an impressive spectacle would almost certainly distract from any diminution in quality.
Tom Harrow is the founder of winechap.com