Devil's Advocate: A Rational Argument for the Half-Litre Wine Bottle

After considering the advice of one of the world's most respected wine producers, Robert Joseph calls for smaller wine bottles.

Reading time: 3m 45s

Robert Joseph - with horns
Robert Joseph - with horns

Let’s all agree that we have no time for the suggestion that, for the sake of our our health, we shouldn’t let even the smallest drop of wine – or any alcohol – pass our lips. Instead, let’s listen to my friend, Laura Catena, head of the eponymous Argentine wine company and a highly experienced medical physician.

Catena says she will “tell anybody who asks [her] that up to two 5-US ounce [roughly 15cl] glasses of wine per day for men, and one for women, skipping a few days per week, is a perfectly safe way to drink.”

Let’s consider the simple maths of this.

And, for the sake of argument, let’s say that the wine in question has not been drawn from a magnum or a can or a bag-in-box. Like most of the wine that most of us drink, it will have come in a 75cl bottle

Can you see where I’m going here?

A man and a woman sharing a bottle of wine, following Catena’s advice, would leave two fifths of it undrunk.

If we’re talking about a man and a woman sharing the bottle according to Catena’s advice, between them, they will have had 45cl, or around three fifths of the contents. Two men respecting the same rules will have had nearly 80%, while a pair of women, just half that much.

In other words, in none of these scenarios will the bottle have been emptied.

Does this matter? Who cares if the two people simply pour the remainder into their glasses and down their throats?

Well, only that, if we take this line, there’s no point in listening to Catena at all.

But, if we trust her expertise, the only option is to stop drinking and store the bottle for another occasion, using a Vacuvin,  Coravin or some other device. Or to simply recork the bottle – of red or white - and pop it in the fridge, as we regularly do in our household.

Whichever method we choose, however, we should bear in mind that we may not be returning to the wine tomorrow or even the next day. At least not if we ‘skip a few days a week’ as Catena suggests.

But when we do go back to it, unless we are both women, there isn’t really going to be enough in the bottle, so we’ll have to open another one. Which, of course, we will also then have to set aside for another occasion.

Is this really what most normal people do? Or do they simply start and finish it in a single sitting, forgetting most likely, that nowadays, its contents may well weigh in at 14.5% or more, whereas the 75cl bottle of previous generations might have had 12 or 12.5%? 


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Reading time: 1m 30s

50cl: the ideal size

Now, let’s imagine another scenario that doesn't involve putting a sixth more alcohol into one's bloodstream.

What if the original bottle contained 50cl, or just over three glasses? Then, it would be almost tailor-made for the male-female couple.

Whenever I raise the suggestion of switching to 50cl bottles, I always encounter the same two objections. First, there’s the cost: the smaller formats cost as much or more than the standard ones. This is explained by the simple laws of supply and demand. 50cl bottles are effectively ‘special orders’. If enough big producers asked for enough of them, their price would fall – as happened with screwcap wine bottles when sufficient producers in Australia and New Zealand began to use them. Last year, VDP producer Staatsweingut Freiburg bottled one of its wines in a returnable half-litre format. This is a brave move - for any winery looking for a premium or super-premium price - but it sends a clear signal. Half-litre wine bottles should be as cheap and as returnable as ones for beer.

We tried it and it didn't work

Second, there’s the ‘we tried it and it didn’t work’ argument which is precisely what Australians and New Zealanders would have heard at any time between the late 1980s when Australian screwcap pioneers gave up on the attempt to introduce it, and the turn of the century when they successfully revived the project.

The 75cl bottle is what we’re used to. And we really, really don’t like change.

In truth, there is only one reason why we stick with the 75cl bottle, and that’s because it’s what we’ve always used. And we really, really don’t like change. Beer comes in lots of different sized-bottles. Why shouldn’t wine?

The trouble is that it isn’t only the WHO that’s gunning for wine right now. Governments in various countries are raising excise duties and people are drinking less – two trends that logically make smaller formats more attractive. Winston Churchill who famously had little time for moderate drinking, said that a pint (47.3cl) of Champagne was “the ideal size, enough for two at lunch and one at dinner”. Since Britain left the EU, there have been calls for a return of the pint bottle, but these have had more to do with imperial nostalgia than common sense. And, in any case, the Champagne houses seem unlikely to revive the format.

What we really need is a big go-ahead wine company somewhere else, with a dynamic, medically-aware CEO who understands these issues and will have the courage to get behind the 50cl bottle.

Maybe somewhere like Argentina…


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