In our culture of excess, more is better. And if you've got a houseful of people during the holidays, having more wine is definitely better, if only for sanity. 750-milliliter bottles (the normal size you see everywhere) fail to fit the bill, so why not buy the big jugs? These family-size 1.5-liter helpers can save you money, and you'll have enough to dive in yourself.
"But isn't all the stuff in big jugs swill?" You might ask.
Actually, no. And, to further muddle the issue, there are two grades of big bottles: affordable ($10-20) and high-end ($80 to offensive). High-end big bottles age well and collect dust quite effectively. Wine ages better and slower in big bottles due to the volume, but these highly coveted items are seldom available for sale except at wine auctions (many state laws prohibit sales of them, for whatever idiotic reason). Large-format bottles are so special that they even have their own lofty-sounding names, defined by how many 750-milliliter bottles are contained in them: Magnum: 2 bottles; Jeroboam: 4 bottles; Rehoboam (rare): 6 bottles; Methuselah: 8 bottles; Salmanazar: 12 bottles; Balthazar: 16 bottles; and Nebuchadnezzar: 20 bottles. Wine geeks haven't lived until they've seen one of the mammoth bottles in person. Makes you want to move into one.
Low-end, affordable large-formats are sold simply for convenience, like buying milk in gallons instead of quarts. And, incidentally, the wine in the big bottles is the same stuff in the smaller ones. No fear that they're filling the big jugs with wine mopped off the bottling floor.
The big bottles are easy to find at any major grocery store across the country, and most fall around the $12 mark. American wineries had drifted away from marketing the 1.5s in recent years -- probably because of the negative jug wine image -- but it seems they're back on the rise. The Aussies had been kicking our ass, per usual, but we caught on to their usefulness.
To deliver you the best of the big, I convened a panel of judges to serve as 1.5 guinea pigs. No one knew they were judging jugs since I poured the wine from 750-milliliter bottles and hid the labels. Our results follow.
Meridian 2003 Chardonnay (California) Laced with apricot, sweet vanilla and ripe peach and goes down smooth. An easy drinking wine, to be sure. Sweetness = 3. $20 for 1.5-liter. HHH 1/2
Vendange 2004 Chardonnay (California) Sweet peach, tangerine and easy acidity define this light, refreshing chard. I didn't think it was a chardonnay at first, and it caused one person to exclaim, "I might have to rethink my chardonnay bias." Excellent value. Sw = 3. $10 for 1.5-liter. HHH 1/2
Barefoot Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon (California) "Dee-lish," fruity and full of bright cherry. "Very drinkable," a good everyday wine. Sw = 2. $11. HHH 1/2
Yellow Tail Shiraz (Australia) This triumphant brand out of Australia took America by storm a few years ago, and it's still captivating people. Tastes like spiked cherry Kool-Aid, but has a rosy, elegant fruit bomb character. Sw = 1. $12. HHH
Lindeman's 2004 Bin 45 Cabernet Sauvignon (Southeast Australia) For those looking for a bigger, heftier big jug. Flirts with black cherry and tobacco, then opens up with ripe raspberries and smoky red currants. Sw = 1. $12.50. HHH
Alice White 2003 Cabernet Shiraz (Southeast Australia) Juicy, mellow and friendly. "Sitting up, talking-trash-at-my-friend's-house" wine. Oozing dark cherry some dirty blackberry. Sw = 2. $12.