Today’s Wine Word: Ullage

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This rather unattractive word belongs to the world in general – not just to wine. The Free Dictionary:

1. The amount of liquid within a container that is lost, as by leakage, during shipment or storage.
2. The amount by which a container, such as a bottle, cask, or tank, falls short of being full.

So, the ullage is 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 do you care? When you see a low fill at the wine shop, it doesn’t mean you just get less wine. It means that the wine could be somewhat oxidized or even spoiled. Oxidation shows up as lost fruit (dullness), brownish color. Wine that has spoiled, outright, is brown and can have many sensory manifestations including a sharp vinegar character or insalubrious fingernail polish remover-like aroma.

The young wine shouldn’t show more than about 1/2 inch of ullage. If you can’t tell because the decorative capsule is in the way that’s a very good sign.

TRIVIA! Many bottling lines are set up so that the ullage is filled with inert, nitrogen gas to prevent oxidation.

If you’re planning a vertical tasting, a subject of the previous post, you need to make an allowance when you shop for older bottles. Mid-neck or the base of the bottle neck isn’t unusual for a ten+ year old bottle and you shouldn’t worry.  

Bottles that are older, yet, might fill to the base of the neck or even a bit below the base of the neck. Much below the base of the neck, into the shoulder, starts to make me nervous.

TRIVIA II: If you see a very high fill on an older bottle it may have been recorked. You might give the producer a call to see what they have to say about the wine’s condition.

When it comes to the barrel, most often the ullage increases because wine is lost to evaporation. But new barrels drink a lot of wine and the winemaker has to really be on top of it until the barrel becomes saturated. 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.  

What’s your low-fill experience? Dull? Noxious? Prematurely old and tired?

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