Doing things by halves has its perks

Had enough of chancing wine by-the-glass in restaurants? Tired of finding stale wine in your glass, poured from a bottle opened three days ago? Or maybe you don’t even get that far, because there’s nothing on the by-the-glass wine list you want to drink?

Join the club. If there are just two of you dining, and you want to drink moderately, by-the- glass is a good option – in theory.

But what about half-bottles? They seem an under-utilised option.

Recently, restaurateur Lou Perri of The Stunned Mullet in Port Macquarie came to me with a beef: he reckons the judges of Australia’s Wine List of the Year Awards penalised him for not having enough wines by-the-glass (just two bubblies, two whites and two reds). He pointed out that he had a very good list of half-bottles, reasonably priced. He said he’d rather serve people good wine by the half-bottle than the stale or low-grade stuff many restaurants serve by the glass.

It’s hard to disagree. Perri has 35 well-chosen half-bottles on his 180-wine list.

But you’ll go a long way to find a restaurant with a good list of half-bottles – other than a luxury establishment like Sepia or Quay.

Wine wholesaler James Johnston of World Wine Estates is a big fan of half-bottles. “Couples who want to try something more expensive than by-the-glass wine can buy a couple of halves,” he says. “My wife and I do that all the time. We’re willing to spend more than the usual price of a glass, but we don’t want the volume of a 750ml bottle.”

As an importer, he always orders halves from the European wineries that he imports, if they’re available. “It’s a brilliant way to sell wine. From the producer’s viewpoint, it’s an extra way to get your wine on a list.”

Producers of high-value wines should offer halves because people who want to try their wines might baulk at buying a full bottle, but may decide they can afford a half. And he says the potential growth in sales of halves is limited, not by demand, but by the number of wineries that produce them.

Perusing any great wine list, you often see the same names in the half-bottle section: Mount Mary (tastings), Rockford (tastings), Curly Flat (tastings), Bass Phillip (tastings), Kumeu River (tastings), Craiglee (tastings).

These are all high-value producers. Their halves aren’t cheap, but they’re more affordable than their fulls.

Sam Middleton, winemaker for the iconic Yarra Valley vineyard Mount Mary, says he is surprised more wineries don’t produce halves. He says Mount Mary has historically placed importance on halves. All of its varieties are bottled in halves as well as fulls, representing about 10 per cent of output. Buyers are mainly restaurants – and also mailing-list clients, since Mount Mary began offering halves to its mailing list in 2006.

“We’ve always had strong interest in the trade. Halves are popular with people dining in couples. Ours are higher-priced wines, so they’re more economical to buy in halves.”

An obvious advantage of half-bottles, according to Jon Osbeiston of Vintage Cellars Ultimo, is that people dining in couples or small groups can try more than one wine with their meal, “Instead of getting stuck with one bottle for the entire meal”. It’s especially appropriate if diners want a white with their entree and a red with their main.

Ultimo has always had a strong suit in half-bottles. “I’m not a big drinker, so I always like halves myself. To me, the perfect way to start a meal is a half of white Burgundy. The only problem with that, is that most Burgundies still have corks.”

Chablis is an exception: several Chablis producers are using screwcaps on halves, including Louis Moreau (tastings) and Domaine Laroche (tastings).

There are increasing numbers of other European whites under screwcap, too. Johnston imports the Alsace whites of Albert Mann (tastings), which make screwcapped halves. I’ve also bought screwcapped halves of Domaine Pichot (tastings) Vouvray from Five Way Cellars in Paddington – a shop that’s surrounded by eating places, so no surprise that it keeps plenty of half-bottles.

Of course, you will usually pay more for a half-bottle than the equivalent volume of wine by-the-glass. There are two reasons for that. First is that half-bottles are more expensive whether you buy them at a winery, shop or restaurant. But also, the wine is likely to be of higher quality. By-the-glass wine is usually a budget option.

Why do halves always cost more than half the price of a 750ml bottle? Sam Middleton says Mount Mary wines that cost $100 for a 750ml bottle are $60 in 375ml.

The answer is the cost. The cost of the bottle, label, screwcap or cork and capsule is more than simply half the cost of a bottle of twice the capacity. And the winemaker must buy twice as much packaging to sell the same volume of wine. As well, says Bindi winemaker Michael Dhillon, the cost of setting up the bottling-line for halves is significant, as is the extra time needed to do the fiddly job of filling, sealing and packing half-bottles.

Middleton sounds a word of warning, though, to people who might be thinking of cellaring half-bottles. “We try to educate people that halves don’t age the same way as 750s. The wine ages far more quickly. However, most buyers tend to drink them relatively early (as they should).”

Perhaps half-bottle mania is catching: Bellevue Hill Bottle Shop now has a specialist online retail site: This offers a massive selection. As you might expect, there are many halves of sweet wines, 375ml being the preferred size for ‘sticky’ whites such as botrytis semillon.

There are also 187ml quarter-bottles, which tend to be mostly cheapies like Jacob’s Creek, Oxford Landing and Yellow Tail. There are also piccolos of Champagne, if that’s your desire – although I don’t know anybody who wants so little Champagne!

As if to wet your whistle, the opening page of reds starts with a 375ml of Domaine Armand Rousseau ’08 Gevrey-Chambertin (tastings). Mmmmm. Yes please!

Restaurants with good half-bottle selections:

Jonah’s, Sepia, Quay, Rockpool Bar & Grill

Retailers with good half-bottle ranges:

Vintage Cellars UltimoFive Way CellarsBellevue Hill Bottle Shop, Annandale

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Good Food – 20 August 2013.

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