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Collecting Q&A: Wine Levels in Old Bottles

Peter D. Meltzer
Posted: February 28, 2007

Q: Looking at some photographs of very old Bordeaux, I noticed the wine level in many of the bottles was low. Is that because of evaporation? Is the remaining wine still any good?

A: A bottle's fill level, or ullage, is a good barometer of a wine's health, its age and the manner in which it was stored. Ullage is caused by evaporation of wine through the cork, and generally indicates that some oxidation has taken place. A certain amount of ullage is acceptable in an older wine, but it can be a sign of damage in a younger vintage. A well-stored, 10- to 15-year-old bottle of wine should still show a fill level in the neck. It is not uncommon for a 20-year-old wine to have levels in the top shoulder. Wines more than 25 years old may have levels in the upper to mid-shoulder. Don't even consider purchasing a 10-year-old wine with levels into the bottle's shoulder.

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