Ullage? Such an odd word. Well, it’s the space between the cork and the wine in the bottle. It can also describe the space between the wine in a barrel and the stopper, which is called a bung.
Why does it matter? When you see a low fill at the wine shop, it doesn’t just mean you get less wine. It means that the wine could be somewhat oxidized. Oxidation shows up as lost fruit (dullness), brownish color or even outright spoilage, which may manifest as vinegar or fingernail polish remover character.
Ideally, there snouldn’t be much more than 1/2 inch or the wine may spoil. Many bottling lines are set up so that the ullage is filled with inert, nitrogen gas to prevent oxidation. But if you see that the ullage is down around the shoulder of the bottle it’s not a good thing.
When it comes to the barrel, the ullage increases due to wine lost to evaporation and when the winemaker has used new barrels they absorb a lot of wine. To prevent oxidation, the winemaker establishes a “topping schedule” which means more wine is added to each barrel every few weeks or every month – whatever the winemaker believes is appropriate or what the budget permits in terms of labor.
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