What is ullage?

By / Magazine / August 31st, 2016 / 13

What is ullage?

When it comes to bottled wine, it’s the gap between where the juice ends and the cork or cap begins. The measurement is usually around three fingers, but it all depends on calibration of the filling machines.

While the jury is still out on the longevity of screw-capped wines, I don’t know of many collectors saving them for future drinking. Wines sealed with a cork have a long history of ageability. Unfortunately, part of the deal is that the wine will slowly evaporate through their security. While this allows a wine to age to perfection, it also means damaging O2 is entering the bottle.

If you keep a wine too long, the increasing percentage of air will overpower your investment. That’s why its measurement is important to anyone cellaring really old wines. Too much and the liquid may have given up the ghost, which means you own an expensive doorstop rather than an immaculate drinker.


What is the difference between en primeur and wine futures, and why should I care about either of them?

To quote an old line from Steve Martin, “It’s like those French have a different word for everything.” While they may not translate verbatim, the terms “en primeur” (aka, in youth) and “wine futures” actually mean the same thing, that being buying fine wine way before its time.

Here’s the scheme. Winemakers make their wine, pour them into barrels to age and then try and sell the young juice months before it ever sees a bottle. Essentially it’s the wine world’s version of the stock market, with buyers speculating on the “future” quality of the juice they’re investing in.

The lords of France’s Bordeaux region got the futures ball rolling centuries ago. Few châteaux sell their wine directly to liquor retailers, preferring to deal with an army of négociants (a fancy name for fancy middlemen) who purchase the right to resell their output to your local wine purveyor.

Come futures release time (somewhere around late winter), négociants inundate their customers with emails offering them the opportunity to get in on some of the yet-to-mature stock they’ve committed to at a price that’s typically much lower than it ever would be to buy the inventory in its finished state.

Why should you care? Well, there’s that price thing I just mentioned. Though the liquid media and select buyers do get a chance to barrel-taste what is offered up through the futures process and report on their initial impressions (which gives the négociants a solid selling tool), no one really knows what kind of reception the completed wines will get.

The one thing that’s for sure is that if out of the bottle a particular wine (or vintage for that matter) blows people’s minds you can bet your bippy that the selling price out of all those négociant warehouses will skyrocket. Of course if the journalist’s palates were off as they thieve their way through the barrel rooms and the wines don’t hold up to the hype, you may be sitting on a few cases of lemons rather than grapes.

If you’re a wealthy collector, and we are talking about very expensive wines here, buying early also gives you a much better chance of securing wines that are, for the most part, in very limited supply.

While the campaign to sell top-end Bordeaux wines as futures has seen better days, other regions (like France’s Burgundy and Rhône Valley, and Portugal’s Douro) and standalone brands like California’s Opus One have flourished by taking the en primeur sales route.

Then again if, like me, your drinking budget is more Donald Duck than Donald Trump, talk of buying futures will be, well, just talk.




Fresh, funny and down-to-earth, Peter Rockwell is the everyman's wine writer. Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia he's worked in the liquor industry for over 30 years and has written about wine, spirits & beer since graduating from the School of Journalism at the University of King's College in 1986. His reviews and feature articles have been published in Tidings, Vines, Occasions, Where and on Alliant.net to name a few; he has been a weekly on-air wine feature columnist for both CBC-TV and Global Television and his wine column 'Liquid Assets' appeared weekly in two of Nova Scotia's daily newspapers, 'The Halifax Daily News' and 'The Cape Breton Post.' Today Peter's irreverent answer man column 'Bon Vivant' appears each month in Tidings Magazine and his weekly 'Liquid Assets' column is published across Canada in editions of the METRO newspaper. When not drinking at home, and at work, Peter travels the globe looking for something to fill his glass and put into words.

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