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Dear Dr. Vinny,
I have been offered a chance to purchase some French wines from the 1950s and 1960s. After inspecting the wines, several have a reduced amount of wine in the bottles, even though they are still sealed. Would it be safe to assume that they have sucked in too much oxygen and are bad?
—Michael H., El Cajon, Calif.
Not exactly. It’s typical that over time, ullage, the space inside a bottle of wine above its fill level, will increase. It’s normal and expected to slowly lose a small amount of wine by evaporation, even in the most optimal of storage conditions.
Of course, you don’t know if the ullage happened naturally, with the passage or time, or if it was expedited by leakage or exposure to warm temperatures. Ullage and fill levels might give a couple of clues, but no real insight into the quality of wine. For example, if someone was trying to sell you a bottle of wine that was 60 years old and the wine looked like it was as full as a new release—with the fill level into a bottle’s neck—that would be suspicious. Likewise, a 10-year-old bottle with ullage all the way down to the bottom of the wine’s shoulder would be a warning sign.
One of the guidelines I’ve heard for appropriate ullage is to avoid bottles with more than half an inch of ullage per decade. The lower the fill, the higher the risk of problems with the wine.
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