What to do about Ullaged Wines?

I discovered about a dozen seriously ullaged wines when I was doing a physical inventory of my cellar, which I do every year to check on what’s really there (some bottles get consumed without recording, some get taken to events, some just disappear…) While I’m at it, I check the conditions of the bottles. Although the cellar is temperature- and humidity-controlled, some bottles do develop ullage—corks don’t last for ever, no matter what.

On a previous check, I discovered ullage in most of my bottles of Mouton Rothschild 1970. I asked Mouton what happened, and this was the reply: “In 1970, we used cork of 54 mm length and we had problem due to the size of the cork and not the quality. Today we use cork of 49 mm length and it is much better. When the cork is too long, the space between wine and cork is not enough to absorb temperature variations.” Pity they didn’t do a recall!

This year the ullaged bottles were all one-offs, with vintages ranging from 1948 to 1975. I have been trying to find a way of enjoying them. Their condition really restricts them to being tried at home, they are too unreliable to offer to guests, and the combination means it may be ambitious to have the whole bottle at one sitting.

Coravin seemed like it might be a solution. Use Coravin for the first half of the bottle, so as to protect the rest with nitrogen, and then pull the cork to enjoy the other half a day later. But the corks are too fragile. Turning the bottle up to use the Coravin, wine washes out right around the cork. Another problem is that, as the bottle is turned more towards the horizontal, the sediment gets all stirred up. So Coravin may be great to enjoy pours of young wines, but once a wine is old enough to have any substantial sediment, it creates as many problems as it solves.

Even extracting the corks without getting fragments into the wine is a problem, but assuming the cork can be got out, I have a working solution. Because of the difficulty of extracting the cork, and uncertainty as to whether the wine will be drinkable, the bottle needs to be opened a bit in advance. Once the cork is finally out, I bubble a little nitrogen into the wine to stop any deterioration before we drink it. A little later, we start on the first half of the bottle.

Assuming the wine hasn’t deteriorated in the course of dinner, I then decant the remaining half into a half bottle. This allows the sediment to be filtered out. Then I sparge the bottle with nitrogen. There have been on or two incidents when the sparging was a bit too vigorous, and we lost some wine, but basically this removes any free oxygen. Obviously it can’t reverse any oxidative changes that have occurred in the wine, but it seems to stop any further deterioration. The wine goes back in the cellar over night to keep it as cool as possible. (Yes, I am aware of Dalton’s law of physics, which means that each gas equilibrates independently in a solution, but be that as it may, so far, on the basis of an admittedly statistically insignificant sample, it works; every wine has been enjoyable the day after.) The Lafite 1961 even improved, and was even smoother and silkier the second day.

The staying power of some of these old wines, especially first growths, is remarkable. Mouton 1949 was rich, full, and opulent: every drop a first growth, even though it was only a second growth at the time. In a blind tasting, I suspect I would have mistaken it for an old Latour. Canon 1966 and La Conseillante 1966 showed unexpected precision. Some bottles were, of course, undrinkable, but I still have several more to go.

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