Ullage is not the secretary at Bialystock and Bloom. Ullage is the Anglicized version of the French word ouillage and it has a couple of meanings, both kind of similar in the big picture with wine. To put it in easy to understand layman’s terms, it is the amount of air space between the wine in the bottle and the cork that I am going to discuss, the other meaning is for the evaporation of wine in a barrel while it is aging, before bottling and normally the winery “tops” the barrels with additional wine to keep the barrels full, to prevent oxidation.
The reason that I am bringing this up, is because I was helping someone dispose of a wine collection that they can no longer appreciate and while we thought about it for a moment, there were far too many famous and expensive wines that while we would love to own them, it is not what we normally drink or even entertain with. We tend to avoid wines in the five-hundred-dollar range or better, because we are mere mortals. Be that as it may, I was helping them out, as a favor, not for any monetary interest. I made a complete inventory of the collection with the intention that they could find sell it outright and not have someone cherry-pick the key wines. I am well aware of “condition” for many different hobbies, like coins and stamps, or automobiles, the more pristine and original the better. Wine is no different, and while I knew of the term ullage, when I helped in the delivery of the wines, I had an instant education of the fine wine market and what pristine means in wine. While I was packing the wines up for delivery and making an inventory for the buyer, I was looking at what I thought was acceptable ullage levels, and for the most part I was right. There are slight degrees that I didn’t look for, that they would at Sotheby’s at auction. Several of the twenty to forty year old wines were showing a liquid level that was mid-shoulder on the bottles, and I say mid-shoulder because almost all of the wines were Clarets or Bordeaux bottles in the more traditional style of bottle compared to bottles from Burgundy that slope outward from the neck without shoulders; little nuances that most people aren’t even aware of. The missing liquid wine is from evaporation through the cork and even with that decorative capsule that covers the cork and bottle opening that has to be cut away when a bottle is opened. I also learned about looking at the capsule, which I never knew about, well almost never knew about and I will get into that in a bit. The capsules on pristine bottles are flat, as liquid and cork are partnered for twenty some odd years the top of the capsule can mushroom out from internal gasses building up from the addition of air and sometimes the gas is strong enough to actually start pushing the cork out of the bottle which causes even more of a flare-up on a normally flat capsule top. Or conversely the cork can get waterlogged and the cork shrinks in diameter and actually no longer acts as a stopper and the wine liquid actually eventually seeps out from the bottle while the capsule is still intact. That is why wine is stored on its side to keep the cork moist to prevent the exchange of air which caused evaporation. There are allowances within the trade for certain ages of wine, but when the level falls below the normal acceptance levels there is concern. I also know that somewhere in one of the nooks and crannies of my brain, I do remember reading once, how the old wine cellars would actually have people come and recork
I said that I didn’t know about the capsules, but since this is the year 2020, there have been lots of strange occurrences and learning episodes. Since, I am retired, I thought I would have more free time, but I am not sure, but I actually rearranged part of the wine cellar, and there is still more to do (patience is a virtue). I have also been recording here about the wines that have been liberated from the cellar, opened up and enjoyed for the most part. As I was moving some of the bottles to make room, my hand got very sticky grabbing the neck of one bottle, the plastic seal was still secure, but some of the wine had seeped out, and if you look at some older bottles you will see that the volume in the bottle looked low. I don’t remember the bottle at all, so I will presume that it was given as a gift and forgotten about, as alas these things do happen. The wine is Weingut Weinhaus Gebr. Endlich Rudesheimer Kosterlay Rotwein Kabinett 1990 from the Rheingau and though it isn’t stated, I will presume that it was made with Pinot Noir, which accounts for five percent of the grapes grown in Rudesheim in the Rheingau. From what I can gather from the label and doing internet searches, the wine was made for a small hotel that had “strangers’ room” availability. I took the bottle and placed it in one of the refrigerators to chill, and when I went to open the bottle, I removed the plastic seal, there was no cork at the neck of the bottle. The nose from the bottle was not what I would call enticing, but I did pour some of the wine into a glass and even the color was wrong, as it was dark with a brown cast, and most red wines as they age tend to lighten in color. I did not attempt a taste, as the wine continued to open up in the glass, it became even less enticing. When I poured the wine down the drain, I discovered that there was a cork sitting in the bottom of the bottle. And now for a different lesson about the capsule, also learned from this year. It happens that while I was a college student, one of my customers offered me the option of buying three bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild 1973 as a future, with the astronomical price of nineteen dollars a bottle in 1970. I had to scrape up the money, which was a King’s ransom back then for a student, and who knew what would have foreseen what occurred in 1973 for the winery, and who knew that the label would feature part of Pablo Picasso’s Bacchanale from the Musée de Mouton and the wording “Premier Cru Classé en 1973. All of this leads up to the fact that I have been constantly in and out of the wine cellar this year with the reorganization and inventory of the cellar and I happened to notice a couple of drops of wine on the floor, under the first column of wines, which begins the French collection that I have. As I was checking the bottles, I noticed that one bottle had a cork that had actually pushed out and through the lead capsule covering. I immediately went into the kitchen and got some sealing plastic pushed the cork back into the bottle, recovered and added a very tight rubber band as an additional sealant. My Bride then asked whether we should have salmon or center-cut pork chops and I emphatically told her the pork, because we didn’t have any filets thawed. I attempted to open the bottle with my Durand, but the cork still came out in dark burgundy wet pieces, and the initial whiff of the bottle was rather foxy or gamey. I then used my tried and true coffee filter paper in a funnel to decant the wine, and the nose was opening up and it was a Mouton, a 1973 to be exact, because I had opened one up a couple of years earlier. The wine was still a deep claret in color and still a delightful blend of fruit and tannins thirty-seven years later. Just in case you are not a Mel Brooks fan, Bialystock and Bloom is the theatrical company featured in the film, musical and the film of the musical of The Producers and her name was Ulla.