A week or so ago I wrote a column on my love of magnums that inspired more than a few readers to write me back. One reader, Ralph Witherell, wrote to request instructions on the proper service of an imperial of 1982 Cos d'Estournel – one of two imperials that he was given about 12 years ago. (Lucky Ralph!)
But Ralph said that when he took his other imperial (of Pichon Lalande) to a restaurant the staff didn't seem to know what they were doing. "The bottle was poured into decanters but it felt like the wine service was somewhat disorganized with lack of attention to detail," Ralph reported. He hoped for more information on how to properly serve his next bottle.
I passed the question to one of my favorite experts, Michael Madrigale, the wine director Bar Boulud in New York. He opens up more big bottles than anyone I know. What words of advice did he have for Ralph?
First of all, he noted, the imperial was the largest bottle that he could personally pick up and pour by the glass (which he does a lot). And the bottle should always be picked up from lower down the bottle, since the neck is narrow and the wax capsules can be slippery.
"It's the norm to find wax capsules on the large format bottles, as it is easier and more cost efficient for the grower to dip them in wax than to have to order a large amount of plus-size aluminum capsules. They usually only bottle a fraction of big bottles compared to the normal 750 [ml] size," Michael wrote in an email.
And wax capsules, he added, could be hard to remove. "My advice to Ralph would be to chip away the wax with the back of your waiter's corkscrew over a large garbage can or in the kitchen sink," he said. He doesn't like stabbing a corkscrew into the wax – that can sometimes push a bit of the wax into the wine.
Then Michael says to make sure the corkscrew is "smack dab" in the middle of the cork. Imperial corks are usually longer and bigger than regular corks. Then Ralph could finally begin to relax.
"At this point, you should be going through the same motions as all of the other wine bottles you've opened," he said. But above all, Ralph should work without haste. Or as Mr. Madrigale put it, "The turtle says: slow and steady wins the race."