For the last few months I was part of a study group training for the Advanced Sommelier exam.
As part of our preparation we needed to taste as many “classic” wines from around the world as possible.
“Classic” examples of wine are typically those that have been produced in a certain region, from a certain grape variety, using certain traditional methods.
And then there are those wines that are generally considered at the pinnacle of the classics – any of the top 5 Premier Crus of Bordeaux, for example.
As the cost of obtaining these classic wines would generally be split between the members of our study group, we needed to get creative in order to keep expenses low.
Some strategies included buying wines from:
- Lesser vintages
- Lesser known producers
- Neighboring regions
For our purposes this presented a challenge – we would debate amongst ourselves after tasting what was missing from the wine to prevent it from being a “classic:
- Producer philosophy
- Use of oak
- French vs American oak
- Overall structure of the wine
- Vintage variation
In most cases we were able to agree, but in others we simply could not – without a true “classic” example to compare against, all this discussion would be purely academic.
In many ways, this problem reflects the desires of the everyday consumer – we all want to have the best that we can afford.
What if I told you that there is an option for you to pay almost half the price for the same quality?
It’s often forgotten when browsing a restaurant’s wine list, or wandering the aisles of the local bottle shop…
The Half Bottle
That’s right – to pay half the price, you just need to get half the amount.
Half the amount, and the same quality – sometimes better (read on for why).
This seems like an obvious solution at first, but how often is this option presented to you?
Most of us have become so accustomed to the 75cl bottle that we accept it as a matter of fact.
How often have you had some wine left over from an open bottle?
How often has that wine gone bad because it could not be preserved long enough?
There are additional benefits to buying in the half bottle format:
I love and respect wine just as much as the next professional, so it is only right that we keep in mind that too much of a good thing can be bad.
To flip the above scenario – how often have you had some wine remaining in the bottle and, not wanting to waste it, force yourself to finish it off in one go?
With the half bottle, binge drinking becomes less of a risk.
Not more in quantity, but in breadth and range.
Imagine you have a multi-course meal to look forward to. Rather than trying to pick one bottle of wine that will match with everything, you can now choose two different half bottles to enjoy.
Seafood for starters? Have a nice half bottle of white wine.
Red meat afterwards? A half bottle of red will be decanted, waiting for you.
The half bottle format also gives you a way to drink better wines that would otherwise remain elusive.
Wine B is $100 – the half bottle size is $50.
Wine A is $200 – the half bottle size is $100.
If you have a budget of $100, you now have the choice of:
- Buying Wine B outright.
- Buying a half bottle of Wine B and something else.
- Splurging on the half bottle of Wine A.
None of the above options is necessarily better than the other – you just have a greater range of options with the half bottle format in play.
All things being equal, half bottles mature more quickly than full bottles.
This is because there is half the quantity of wine being exposed to the same surface area of cork, which allows the very slow ingress of oxygen that contributes to the aging process.
This is good if you want to try a wine with more developed flavors and aromas.
If you prefer wines that are fresher and fruit driven, you can still buy more recent vintages, or those wines that are under the screwcap closure.
There are two main drawbacks of the half bottle format:
Not Always Half Price
Generally, due to the added cost of production, the cost of half bottles are not always exactly 50% of the full bottle price.
Typically this is not too bad – you’ll find it’s 50% plus a few dollars.
In my opinion, this is the bigger drawback of the half bottle format.
Not all producers believe it is worth the added cost of production to offer their wine in a half bottle size, so they simply don’t.
You will likely find at your local bottle shop that the selection of half bottles if wine is rather limited.
On the plus side, if they do decide to stock up on half bottles, they will generally be of better quality wines that they know will sell.
The half bottle format is always worth keeping in mind.
If more people considered it, perhaps more producers would consider putting their wines out in this form, and we would all have a greater range to choose from.
Of course, if you’re planning a large party with some close friends, by all means go crazy with the Magnums (1.5L), Jeroboams (3L) and Methuselahs (6L).
Just remember to drink responsibly.
Read more: 3 Reasons You Should Buy Wine By The Case