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Wine

The Liter Bottle Is Having a Moment

September 20, 2021

Story: Ari Bendersky

photo: PUNCH

Wine

The Liter Bottle Is Having a Moment

September 20, 2021

Story: Ari Bendersky

photo: PUNCH

From old-vine verdejo to old-school grüner, wines in the oversized format signal a new era of everyday drinking.

Growing up in the 1970s, I remember my mom drinking what she called “Rhine wine” from a large jug she kept in the fridge. Whether it came from Germany, I can't say, but I do know it wasn’t great wine. Today though, the oversized format, namely 1-liter bottles, represents something different: a new format for an old idea. From old-school grüner veltliner to fresh, acid-driven French rosé, liter bottles have become a modern symbol of affordable, everyday wines.

Many credit the Austrians for starting this movement in the early 2000s. Weingut Berger in Gedersdorf, Austria, for example, began bottling its organically grown grüner at a lower cost meant for everyday consumption. You could get a liter bottle of crisp, citrusy, high-acid wine with a crown cap for less than $15—a deal, most would say.

It was very much everyday wine,” says Michael Drapkin, owner of Kingston Wine Co., in Kingston, New York. They were refreshing, simple, workaday wines. They weren't challenging or meant to offend, but just delicious and modestly priced.”

Back then, Drapkin was working at Whole Foods in Washington, D.C. He started noticing these liters alongside zweigelt and German rieslings, often brought in by importer Terry Theise, but that was about it. Fast-forward to the early 2010s, when more wines produced with an agriculturally focused, hands-off approach began appearing in greater numbers. However, many options were expensive and not necessarily approachable for nascent wine drinkers. Soon though, importers recognized the hole in the market.

“[Selection Massale] began their own liter project, bottling ready-to-drink bottles that were some of the first affordable, natural liters around,” says Jill Bernheimer, owner of natural wine shop Domaine LA in Los Angeles. "That's what really set off the trend."

It’s equally about the informality and the party aspect.

In 2012, low-intervention wine importer Selection Massale began conceiving of a label that would showcase high-quality, entry-level wine meant to drink now. “We wanted to put a fun label on a 1-liter bottle with a screw top, and have it be an identifiable brand,” says Tim Gagnon, Selection Massale’s general manager. “It could be your foray into natural wine or complex enough for it to be a go-to.”

Teaming up with some of their European producers, Selection Massale created the now-ubiquitous and well-regarded La Boutanche, which loosely translates to “my bottle.” The inspiration, Gagnon explains, came from the French co-op model, where people in the countryside seeking everyday table wine could bring in a jug bottle and fill it for a few euros. Today, Selection Massale works with 10 to 12 producers each year, including Olivier Minot (gamay), Martin Texier (cinsault), Andi Knauss (trollinger and riesling) and Broc Cellars (zinfandel blend), to each release 600 to 1,600 cases of La Boutanche for around $20 a bottle, labeled with whimsical illustrations of anthropomorphic pigs, apes, fish and other animals drinking wine.

Around the same time as Selection Massale, Italian winemakers Marco Tait, Elisabetta Foradori and Giovanni Podini came together to form Ampeleia, a collaborative label in Tuscany’s Maremma region. Unlitro, a blend of five grapes (grenache, carignan, sangiovese, mourvedre and alicante bouschet) packaged in a short-necked liter with a minimalist, stacked-font label, is a fresh, bright red from a region more often associated with Super Tuscans and traditional powerhouses like Ornellaia and Sassicaia. It remains a leader in this category, producing 150,000 bottles annually.

The success of Unlitro and La Boutanche signals not only a new format for the wine drinker seeking low-intervention styles, but an opening for more kinds of wine drinker and more kinds of occasions. “Bigger bottles say, ‘more fun,’” says Craig Perman, of Chicago’s Perman Wine Selections. “In some ways, it’s equally about the informality and the party aspect. That has to do with the labels being fun; it’s light and sessionable. You can make a correlation between the liter bottle and natural wine in that you have this side of fun and relatable aspects to it.”

While liters still comprise a small portion of wine shops’ inventory, Drapkin's sales demonstrate increased interest. “A disproportionate amount of liter bottles are in the top 20 wines we sell throughout the year,” Drapkin says. “With less than 10 percent of wines on our shelves packaged in liters, you shouldn’t think 30 percent of those are in the top sellers.” And of course, in the years since he first observed those liters of grüner, he’s watched everything from dornfelder and silvaner to trollinger and verdejo come across his shelves.

"These aren’t just one-note delicious wines, but more layered, complex wines,” Drapkin says. “For people who are unaware of a liter bottle, they try it once and tend to return to it almost exclusively.”

5 Liter Bottles to Try

Hervé Villemade Bovin Rouge

After developing a sulfur allergy, Villemade transitioned his familys vineyards in 2020 to organic farming. His gamay evokes a real country” wine, says Domaine LAs Jill Bernheimer, enjoyed by farmers after a long day working the fields.

  • Price: $22
  • Vintage: 2020

Weingut Brand Weissburgunder

This pretty, flower-adorned pinot blanc from Germany’s Pfalz draws a drinker in with notes of green apple and citrus that pair well with fresh vegetables, shellfish and roasted chicken.

  • Price: $19
  • Vintage: 2020

Microbio Litrona Verdejo

With a label depicting a graphic Piña Colada in a pineapple, Microbio’s Litrona showcases organically grown, old-vine (like 150 years old!) verdejo from Spains Rueda region. It’s fermented in amphora before aging for three months in stainless steel to produce a young, fresh, drinkable wine.

  • Price: $32
  • Vintage: 2020

Ampeleia Unlitro Costa Toscana IGT 

One of the O.G. liter bottles, Unlitro from Tuscany’s Maremma region celebrates its 10th anniversary this year. Fermented with native yeasts and aged for about seven months in cement, this blend of five red grapes is fresh, bright and very popular. According to the winemaker, it reflects our desire to express the territory in a lighter and more immediate way, without losing any of its character.”

  • Price: $16
  • Vintage: 2020

Andi Knauss La Boutanche Trollinger

Each year, Selection Massale partners with a number of low-intervention producers to create releases across a range of varietals and regions. This red, with its playful grasshopper label, is so zippy and light (best served chilled) that it could easily be mistaken for a dark rosé.

  • Price: $20
  • Vintage: 2020

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Tagged: natural wine, wine

Ari Bendersky, a lifestyle journalist specializing in food, wine, spirits and travel, has written for New York Times, WSJ magazine, Associated Press, Men's Journal, Wine Enthusiast, Departures, RollingStone.com and more. Ari lives in Chicago with his husband and their super cute scruffy dog, Eddie (the girl!).