Sediment On Stage

Thursday, 6 January 2011

In praise of the half-bottle


Driven perhaps by recent over-indulgence, perhaps by New Year austerity, I feel that the half-bottle of wine deserves a re-appraisal. Quite apart from constraining my consumption, there are some valid points to be made in celebration of the half-bottle, even if they do bring me into direct conflict with CJ, who seems to prefer the jerrycan as a measure.

The thing is, the half-bottle is really a solitary pleasure. There simply isn’t enough to share. I have watched disbelievingly as a Parisian couple shared a half bottle of wine over lunch. (At the other end of this scale, I once nodded admiringly at two City chaps sitting down at Rules restaurant to a serious lunch of steak and kidney pudding and a magnum of claret. Respect.)

Does that mean there’s something of the sad and lonely about the half-bottle? Something of the book beside the dining plate, the microwaved meal-for-one, and the failure to subscribe to BT Friends & Family because you can’t make up the numbers?

No; look at it the other way. There’s nothing greedy about a half-bottle to yourself. You can sit alone at a table with a half-bottle in front of you, and project an image of totality; neither profligate nor parsimonious, this is my all.

And knowing that it’s your all, you can pace your drinking accordingly. We all do it; that’s the slug for before, top it up for the starter, leave that for the main… you pace yourself according to the quantity of wine at hand. (And hence there is nothing more irritating than a companion who suddenly says, halfway down a bottle, “Do you know, I will have a glass after all?” Oh, so there won’t be enough left to go with my cheese, then. Suddenly, like a sat-nav taken on a diversion, you have to recalculate everything.)

The half-bottle is all yours, to open and complete. Yes, one could always decant half of a 75cl bottle, and seal the rest for another day; that still provides you with that satisfying sense of completion, watching the level go down and pacing your consumption until the last drops are wrung from your carafe. But there is something about having an actual bottle on the table, connecting the taste and the label, which a decanter can never provide.

And is it just me (and I often discover it is…) but don’t you always find that the first “half” you decant is invariably larger than the second? Is it the difficulty of accounting properly for the quantity in the narrower neck? Or just the excitement of opening a new bottle? Whatever; Day Two’s “half” is never quite enough…

The real problem – and let’s face it, there always seems to be a problem where the Sediment blog is concerned – is that it’s hard to get decent red wine in half bottles. It’s too much trouble for a lot of producers to change their bottling lines. The really good stuff needs the size of a bottle (or even a magnum) to mature properly over the years; the bulk wine merchants don’t bother stocking half-bottles; and in the supermarkets half-bottles are often just “cooking wines”.

However, close to my office is a wine merchant, Uncorked. As far as I can see, the main role of this shop is to provide frighteningly expensive wines for City types with huge amounts of money. I was in here once (browsing, just browsing…) when a chap walked in; the assistant said “Good afternoon sir…Got anything in mind?” and the customer actually replied “Oh, about a thousand pounds a case…?”

(They also have, at the time of writing, four bottles of Chateau La Mission Haut Brion 1983, each at £600.01. Yes, that’s six hundred pounds and a penny. Now, I know margins are tight these days, but… a penny?)

Anyway, Uncorked does offer a good selection of half-bottles. Perhaps instead of a moderately good magnum, City boys now limit themselves to a good half-bottle at lunchtime – or perhaps it’s to offer something to penniless plebs like me – but there are half a dozen interesting halves of red in the shop, and online Uncorked list 23 half-bottle reds, (click on Bt Sz in their list to see) including some serious Bordeauxs – Pichon-Longueville Lalande 2005 at £40.80 a half-bottle, anyone? Apart from that one, the rest are below £20, and there’s something exciting to me about seeing a wine list with good Bordeauxs priced affordably in the ‘teens, even if you are only getting half the quantity.

And perhaps that’s the thing; half-bottles are an opportunity to experience wines you couldn’t afford by the bottle. Lesser quantity, higher quality; isn’t that the New Year resolution of many? Not CJ, I suspect, but if so, perhaps this is the answer. Sometimes, it can be better to do things by halves.


PK

5 comments:

  1. PK,

    Many thanks for mentioning our selection of half bottles, I too wish more producers would bottle in this format – they’re perfect for 1st courses, solo dinners or short train voyages!

    There are just a couple of items in your post that I thought could use clarification. Firstly, while it’s true we have an extensive fine wine list recently judged as one of the finest in the country by Jancis Robinson, we are by no means “frighteningly expensive”. Our wines cater to every price point, starting at around £6 per bottle, with over half the wines in our Bishopsgate shop costing below £25. Say what you will about “City types with huge amounts of money” but they tend do to have a pretty good idea of how much things cost on the open market. For example, our bottles of 1982 La Mission Haut-Brion (not 1983, as you stated) are £600 per bottle, which is the cheapest price on wine-searcher.com (Roberson Wine Merchants have 5 bottles at £1175 per bottle, for a bit of perspective). Secondly, the extra penny that was on the price was due to the recent VAT change that we’ve all had to endure overnight and was generated via a program. We’re diligently working through all our prices to make them less idiosyncratic.

    Warmest regards,

    Cameron Christie
    Retail Manager
    Uncorked Ltd
    Exchange Arcade
    Broadgate
    London EC2M 3WA

    Tel 020 7638 5998
    uncorked.co.uk

    Registered in England no 4479554 | Registered office 25 Moorgate London EC2R 6AY

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  2. I like half bottles for variety. An OK restaurant in Napa has a great selection of half bottles on it's wine list...my husband and I had 3 different wines with one meal, a little pricey way of doing things but we were guaranteed that the wines were fresh and not from a bottle opened several days previously.
    The winery where I work is family owned...the daughter and head of marketing would love to bottle 375ml of wine, her dad, and majority owner, doesn't want to. There you have it!

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  4. I wish more wines came in half bottles. Wine really doesn't keep well no matter how it is sealed. Our Friday Night group therapy likes to taste different bottles of wine but 4 women are not going to open 10 different bottle of wine a night. (we are all too thrifty to waste too much wine and too lightweight to drink it all) Half bottles would allow us to do more tasting. I'm also tired of opening up bottles of wine only to find the quality and taste suck. I'd much rather pour a half bottle down the drain than a full bottle. However, I bet the mark up on half bottles is even higher per ounce. So we might have a problem with that.
    http://www.winewomenandblog.com/Wine,_Women_and_Blog/Welcome.html

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  5. You're preaching to the converted as far as I am concerned. I have been drinking half bottles for almost 30 years motivated by the desire not to drink too much during the week. On the fun side a half of champagne whilst dressing for an evening out is really special. Teresa also highlights a good reason.

    I have had to resort to visiting wineries to get acceptable quality half bottles as they are difficult to come by. Having built up a good list of places over the years I decided to see if there was a business in it so I launched halfwine.com as a specialist half bottle retailer. All wines have been selected by me and are quality wines from a good vintage that are excellent examples of the varietal and the region. And there are preselected tasting packs.

    From a price perspective, our margins aren't out of line with the industry but it does cost the winemakers almost the same to bottle a half as it does a full. The cork, cap and label cost the same and the bottling process is the same. So you will pay more - a half will cost between 2/3 and 3/4 of a full

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