Show Hide image

It helps when you've got a lot of bottle

Don't judge a book by its cover, but maybe judge a champagne by its bottle.

Let us open a good bottle and for once consider not the contents but the container. It’s human nature to presume that the outside – of books, of people – tells us something about the inside, although it’s no longer fashionable to admit it. Physiognomy, the study of faces in the belief that the inner self is writ large upon them, was a hit at almost exactly the time that some enterprising fellow decided to double the size of the standard bottle (based on the average capacity of a glass-blower’s lungs) and see what happened.

Johann Kaspar Lavater’s 1778 book on physiognomy was so influential that 50 years later, the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, nearly refused to let Charles Darwin accompany him after deciding his nose indicated a sluggard. Meanwhile, the first recorded use of “magnum” to mean “giant bottle, often of champagne, frequently employed by rich City types to demonstrate their good fortune and, quite possibly, stand in for a key appendage which may not be quite double the standard size” (I paraphrase), was in 1788.

You can judge a magnum by its carapace: you are only human, after all, and where would architecture be, or painting, or for that matter the propagation of the species, if we weren’t all a little inclined to give weight to appearances? But the magnum has hidden depths. It is, says Mathieu Kauffmann, chef du cave at Bollinger, the ideal format in which to age champagne. This is to do with the higher ratio of wine to air. Oxygen levels are vitally important in winemaking: too much and the wine will be faulty; too little and you will be drinking grape juice. With champagne, secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle, which is how it ends up fizzy. So a magnum conceals more energy than you might anticipate.

Recently, I found myself in a Miami nightclub with carefully fashioned exteriors, some of which communicated beautifully with me, although they were not the human ones. The owner of a stock-car racing team had invited me to see how the other half party. Below our balcony, the plebs roiled; our eyrie was too crowded to dance in, but no matter – the music was terrible. Very young, attractive women, there as team cheerleaders (and no, I have no idea if that’s a euphemism), undulated in the tiny space but attempts at conversation with one of them proved unsatisfactory: if I were uncharitable, I’d use the analogy of an empty bottle. So I turned to the drink.

Coming up rosé

Magnums of Grey Goose and Krug arrived with the regularity of surf. When watering one’s thirsty entourage, bigger is better, which is why Grey Goose – premium vodka that has never knowingly contained a bubble – also comes in magnum. Both tasted good but there was no getting round the physiognomics: the girls and the drink were encouraging me to judge by appearances, and these glitzy externals, cars included, made up the husk by which Mr Stock-Car Man wanted to be assessed.

Weeks later, at the annual Bollinger lunch, I was served La Grande Année Rosé 1995 in magnum. It was gorgeous – liquid rose petals, the scent of dried summer. It had aged in the best receptacle to ensure its inner beauty; by now, they could have decanted it into Tupperware and it would still have been lovely, although not quite as lovely as it was. We are a shallow species, if a capable one.

So let’s raise a glass – to Lavater, to Darwin, and to that blowhard who invented the magnum and named it the Latin for “big” – just in case we failed to see what was right in front of our eyes.

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.


This article first appeared in the 23 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Israel: the future