The Boston Phoenix
May 25 - June 1, 2000


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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 the world.

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 quaffing bubbly -- 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 wine[a]

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