My wife proudly suggested I write on this topic. I will explain shortly the background for this unusual suggestion but first let me explain the term.
Ullage is the space between the bottom of the closure (cork or screw-cap) and the top surface of the wine in the bottle. Jancis Robinson calls this the head space or, any space inside the stoppered bottle not occupied by wine. Normally this space is small but over time it will increase in size, at least in bottles stoppered by corks.
Cork is a tightly-grained natural closure material and while its texture is dense, there is some porosity and cork quality/porosity can vary widely. Porosity allows some entry of air into the wine bottle and this helps with maturation of wines that are expected to improve with age.
As a wine ages in the bottle the level of the wine can subside so that a small amount of ullage (say ¼ of an inch when young) can increase to the point where the wine level falls to the shoulder of the bottle (a Bordeaux bottle in this example). When there is an obvious, pronounced head space in a wine bottle, regardless of its age, it can be a warning yellow light of concern: is the cork defective resulting in a faulted wine? For instance, has the wine oxidized to a degree where it is no longer good; or, is the cork so poor that the wine may be corked (i.e. cork taint)?
Wines at auction are often rejected by the auctioneer even before the event if there is pronounced ullage, simply because this is a possible sign of a flawed wine. If there is doubt about a wine’s condition it is rejected.
This past weekend I was packaging my wine cellar for an upcoming relocation and I have considered donating some of my wines to an upcoming auction. With the possibility of the auction donation I checked each bottle of the older wines for evidence of wider-than-normal head space. One bottle stood out so I decided to put it aside and serve it with dinner that evening.
This brings me to my wife’s idea that I write about ullage.
When I opened the bottle I was disappointed. I asked my wife – who prides herself on having no powers of discernment when it comes to wine assessment – to smell the glass and tell me what she smelled.
Without hesitation she said it smelled like a wet basement.
Bingo! I was astounded at this hidden prowess!
Wet basement is the classic description of TCA (2,4,6-trichloroanisole) or cork taint. Cork taint is the most common reason wines are returned in restaurants and is the primary factor for widespread adoption of screw cap closures in the wine industry.
My wife was very proud and I was very impressed. Hence the suggestion for this little piece on ullage.
This taint is caused by exposure to chlorine, either in the process of sterilizing the corks without adequate rinsing or due to ambient chlorine residues in the winery. Suffice it to say taint is bad. Tainted wines are stinky – not something you wish to endure, regardless of price.
Suffice it to say, also, this is why ullage is important and why it is a helpful guide when considering wine quality.
April 18, 2105 Release Selections
Ontario, Niagara – VQA Beamsville Bench Cave Spring Vineyard CSV Riesling 2012
I will be up-front. This wine defines the genre: run-don’t-walk! This is my perennial favourite Ontario Riesling (and I say something to the same effect every time CSV appears on Vintages shelves). While it is medium is sugar content (apparently the sugar level is 14 g/L, barely above off-dry) this is a delight as there is enormous natural acid in the wine. This is a wonderfully-balanced wine with intense aromatics and an expressive palate. This is a wine which will age for years. It has concentrated lime and green apple fruit and a firm minerality which is a hallmark of the soils of the Beamsville Bench. The finish is long and precise. Pricy? Not at all. This wine has held the same $29.95 price for at least the past 6 years.
Medium, white wine – $29.95 per bottle
France, Alsace– AOC Alsace Hugel & Fils Riesling 2012
Hugel is one of the member families of the small international association of family-owned wineries known as Primum Familiae Vini (PVF). This association is a unique body comprising a maximum of twelve members each of which must be a family-owned enterprise known for the highest quality wine and brand value. Presently the membership is eleven in number and includes the families of Antinori, Torres, Symington, Perrin, Rothschild (Mouton, that is), Drouhin, Rocchetta (Sassicaia), Pol Roger, etc. I think you get a sense of the noble names. This wine is a classic Alsatian Riesling with brilliant citrus and tree-fruit aromas and flavours, flinty minerality and bright acid. The texture is crisp and the finish is very long. I called this a classic but I note, also, that it is very classy!
Extra dry, white wine – $24.95 per bottle
Australia, South Australia – Thorn-Clarke Barossa Valley Shotfire Quartage 2012
This wine is made from a Bordeaux blend, dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon along with small proportions of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Merlot. It is an intense wine with lots of flavor and complexity. It has oodles of blackcurrant fruit, coffee, some mint and black cherry on the nose and palate. The structure is solid with firm tannins, juicy acid and a long finish. Well done!
Extra dry, red wine – $21.95 per bottle
New Zealand, Hawkes Bay, North Island – C. J. Pask Gimblett Road Syrah 2013
Hawkes Bay is a small, warm zone on the north island, noted, among other things, for the work done by C.J. Pask who was a pioneer in making Bordeaux style reds in the area. This wine is made with a grape that has shown great results in the warm climate of Hawkes Bay: Syrah. This is Old World in style: bright fruit, crisp acid, modest tannins and modest evidence of winemaking intervention. It has the blackberry fruit, black pepper, violet and earthy character of Syrah with sound balance and a clean finish. Very nice.
Extra-dry, red wine – $21.95 per bottle
Spain, Ribera del Duero – DO Ribera del Duero Torres Altos Ibéricos Crianza 2012
Torres is another PFV member (wines from this group are featured in this weekend’s Vintages release). This is a pretty wine with bright fruit, modest, well-integrated oak, medium body weight and an attractive, inviting mouth feel. The fruit character is of concentrated ripe black and red berry, the texture is light, soft and juicy and the finish is medium long and bright. This will be an excellent summer red. Buy lots at this attractive price.
Dry, red wine – $16.95 per bottle
Copyright © W. John Switzer 2003 – 2015