I like big bott’s and I cannot lie

Sam Hellyer, Head of Wine & Spirits, each month will be guiding us through the top tips to buying all things drinkable and some fun facts to wet one's whistle. This month, Sam delves into the extraordinary appeal of big bottles and advises on how to impress your friends and family this Christmas.


I was once told that the best way to buy Bordeaux was to order 24 half-bottles, a case of 12 bottles and 6 Magnums. The rather expensive theory being that you open the halves every year, then wait twice as long to open the bottles, and then longer still to open the magnums. At the time I was an assistant manager in an Oddbins Fine Wine store, so this kind of investment was out of my reach. However, I have always loved a magnum, regardless of the purpose behind it, there is something enduringly fun and attractive about the ooh’s and aah’s that come from the assembled diners as you bring out a comically huge bottle to share around.

In our September sale, we auctioned off two magnums of Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1996 (Lots 201 and 202). As per usual with Bordeaux Magnums they attracted great interest and unsurprisingly they surpassed even my high estimate. Obviously, the ageing potential is one of the factors that attracts people to magnums of Bordeaux specifically, but as ever with wine, one of the driving factors is rarity, exclusivity and this translates into price. It’s a good analogy for the 1855 Classifications of Bordeaux, much talked about, sometimes derided, but importantly still enforced. The enduring relevance of this classification, which has only seen one addition to the first growths in over 150 years, is a testament to the very shrewd assessment of the time that price is both the mark and maintainer of quality.

The 1855 Classifications, originally made for the 1855 Paris Expo, was based upon the selling price per barrel of each chateau at the time. You might therefore wonder why wineries didn’t just up their prices that year to achieve a better rank, but of course, it was négociants and merchants who were buying the wines that had their own ideas of what they would be willing to pay to make a profit.

The first growths were originally Chateau Haut-Brion, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Latour and Chateau Lafitte, but there have been two amendments since the original classification. Cantermerle was added to the Fifth Growths in 1856 because it had been over-looked, and Mouton Rothschild successfully petitioned to move up from second to first growth in 1973.

In the same vain, the splitting of wine into different format bottles is a mirror of splitting wine into different regions. The regions that produce less, drives their own value up and producing less large format bottles increases their rarity and value for the same wine.

The value of the wine can be difficult to establish, and so my job is to look at wines and try to decide what they would be worth to someone else. I examine a myriad of factors such as the fill levels, the label condition and how it’s been stored (to name the obvious ones). But one thing is for sure, if it’s in a big ol’ bottle, it’s going to get more attention, and attention translates into value.

Due to the 1855 classifications, merchants and négociants knew what they could sell the wine for. This was due to the fact they knew how much there was, people’s opinion of the wine, and how it was going to reach the buyer. The merchants were the ones tasked with drawing up the classification list, but as far as the first growths were concerned, the list was made more than 60 years earlier.

One particularly famous figure who was possibly by accident responsible for his influence on the value of wine, was Thomas Jefferson. The stories of Jefferson’s times as Cultural Attaché to France and his life in Paris are many, varied and often embellished for a variety of reasons, but Thomas was an assiduous record keeper and a huge fan of French wine. As such it should be no surprise that he kept a record of his rankings of Bordeaux vineyards. Thomas Jefferson wrote the following in 1787:

“There are four vineyards of prime quality”:

    1. Chateau Margaux, belonging to the Marquis d’Argicourt, who produces around 150 barrels that were sold by contract to a merchant named Jernon.


    1. La Tour Segur, (Chateau Latour) in Saint-Lambert, belonging to Mister de Miromesnil, who produces 125 barrels.


    1. Haut-Brion, two-thirds of which belong to the Count de Fumel who sold the harvest to a merchant called Barton. The other third belongs to the Count of Toulouse; in all, the château produces 75 barrels.


    1. Chateau de la Fite, (Chateau Lafite Rothschild) belonging to President Pichard of Bordeaux, which produces 175 barrels”

Is it proof of the vineyard’s innate quality that two rankings, 68 years apart, both set these four apart from their contemporaries? Where the Chateaus very good at marketing their wines or did Thomas Jefferson’s opinion carry enough weight to increase export and demand for those four wineries and help to drive their prices up over the next 68 years? Probably some of all these factors, but it’s safe to assume that the scarcity that was caused by their popularity was a key driver in their pricing come 1855.

As well as large format’s echoing this pricing model, history of course echoes down through the ages. In the 1970’s Robert Parker, a fellow countryman of Thomas Jefferson, became hugely influential in the pricing of Bordeaux due to his reviews and rating systems. Much like the former president, I doubt he set out to influence the prices and assessment of the wines. Nonetheless his opinion influenced one of the largest export markets, filtering down through the years and undoubtedly affecting people’s thinking of the value of wines.

So the question is, are big bottles just fun and therefore carry an innately higher price, or does the opinion of the wine trade, such as my erstwhile advisor who suggested buying halves, bottles and magnums to get the most out of Bordeaux, trickle down through advisors and opinion makers into the collective consciousness of the buyer, which make big bottles take on an extra layer of weight in the mind of the buyer? You’ll have to see in our next Wine & Spirits auction on 5th December.

For more information contact Sam Hellyer, Head of Wine & Spirits.