The Mystique of Old Wine:
Bottle Variation, Cellaring and Drinking

Anyone who has tasted a great old vintage will testify to the emotionally charged experience it can be. Wine is a link to the natural world and an old vintage itself a link to a time and events long past. The first whiff of the complex aromas stimulates memories associated with the vintage: Where was I? What was I doing? What was going on in the world? Richard Brierly, head of Wine Sales for North America for Christies admits, “A lot of my greatest wine moments have been with great old vintages; but I’ve had just as many bad ones.” And Marcel Ducasse Winemaker at Third Growth Chateau Lagrange in St. Julien comments, “To me, opening old bottles is not very interesting; except if you are very rich and you can open three bottles in a row to find one good bottle.”

What factors influence a wine’s evolution? What changes does a wine undergo as it matures? How do cellar temperature and humidity affect those changes? Why would two bottles stored under identical conditions evolve differently? What role does cork play in bottle variation? Should collectors maintain their cellars at a constant temperature or are seasonal fluctuations acceptable and perhaps even beneficial? An understanding of all the factors affecting a wine’s evolution is indispensable to a collector’s decisions in buying, cellaring and drinking.

Bottle Variation Due to Bottling Practices

Before modern bottling equipment made bottle variation less common, bottles were filled to different levels, at different times and often at different locations. Brierly points out that, “Anytime you buy a 40-50 year old wine, you assume risks and you’re going to have bottle variation.” He notes that Bordeaux Chateaux used to bottle barrel by barrel, “now they rack everything from barrel to tank and bottle all at once. There is clearly more uniformity now.”

Ducasse agrees: “There will be a difference when the wine is bottled barrel by barrel because every barrel has its own personality.” According to Pontallier, bottling of the total production at Château Margaux as well as at the other first growths started in 1949, except for Mouton Rothschild which started in 1923 or 1924.
Ducasse cites another factor: “Before the 70s certain Chateaux didn’t bottle at the Chateau but sent the wines in bulk; one barrel to London, another to Brussels and another to Berlin. In these cases there was great variation because of the means of transportation and also the conservation of the barrels. At Lagrange, just before bottling we blend all the wines from the different barrels into vats to create homogeneity.”

Jean Louis Chave explains the recent history of bottling in Hermitage: “For a small domaine it was very expensive to have a bigger tank only to be used once a year, for blending. Most producers were not blending all the barrels into a big tank, but selling the wine when they had orders. At Domaine Chave, until 1982, we were bottling by foudres; the blend was the same but you had wines with different bottling dates, leading to slight variation.”

When Jacques Seysses started Domaine Dujac in 1968, he was the only one in his village of Morey Saint Denis that bottled 100% of the wine at the estate. “In the 60s and 70s, there were only six to eight domaines estate-bottling their wines in all the Côte de Nuits: Gouges, Rousseau, De Vogue, D’Angerville and Herve Prudhon, for example. Today, I can name 5 or 6 in my village.”

Seysses recalls simpler days when “I had a cork machine that you had to press a peddle to insert the cork; you filled the bottles by eye and had to be very careful not to overfill.” Winemakers leave a headspace of 10-15mm to allow room for the wine to expand due to temperature increases. James Herwatt, Chief Executive Officer of Cork Supply USA in Napa, California, describes the dangers of filling the bottle to the bottom of the cork: “Any increase in temperature will cause the volume to expand, pushing wine up the side of the cork. If it goes all the way to the end of the cork and out the bottle, you’re creating air passage into the bottle. For wine to get out, air has to get in to replace it.” This extra air space is called ullage.

With “anything pre-1975,” he says, “you seem to see all sorts of variation within one case. Twenty-five years or older it is really about the bottle itself. Somebody once said, ‘there are no good wines over 25 years old, only good bottles,’” Brierly observes.

“I think it is exaggerated,” contends Pontallier. “I have had the privilege to taste maybe 300 bottles of 1961 Chateau Margaux over the last twenty years and the proportion of bad bottles is ridiculously small. A great vintage has a wonderful capacity for bottle aging.

Pontallier adds that the vast majority of these bottles had been stored at the Château. “Of course storage conditions can interfere. If you consider that the wine may have traveled the world ten times, that’s totally different. It can ruin the bottle after 10 years or even 5 years if it’s handled the wrong way.”

Bottle Variation Due to the Cork

Even though it has become common practice to consolidate all the barrels into a single tank prior to bottling, cork variation can still affect the evolution of the wine. “Even within an original wood case of 1961 Bordeaux, stored at proper temperature and humidity, you will absolutely see a range of ullage, from mid-shoulder to right up into the neck of the bottle,” says Brierly.

Vernon L. Singleton, Professor Emeritus of Viticulture and Enology at UC Davis explains cork’s role in this variation, “Cork comes from the bark of an oak tree. Because of the inherent variability of a natural product, there is going to be a wide range in the amount of oxygen that comes through the cork into the wine. It is therefore difficult to predict that all twelve bottles in a case of wine will age the same – it is likely that they will not.”

Air Ingress

The diameter of an average cork is 24mm. The corker compresses it to16mm to fit it into the bottleneck, after which it bounces back to 18mm – the diameter of the bottleneck. Six millimeters or 25% of the cork is pushing out against the glass to create the seal. Cork’s tiny air cells contain suberin, a waxy substance that makes it water-resistant.

Despite this seemingly air-tight seal, Singleton believes that air gets into the wine as a result of wine evaporating through the cork. He states, “Water and ethanol are both small, volatile molecules and very slowly evaporate through the cork which accounts for the increased ullage in very old bottles. Since the cork is not pulled in, the headspace must be relieved by an inflow of air.” (Air does get into the wine during bottle aging. This is illustrated by the fact that half bottles mature faster than full bottles. Since both bottles have the same neck and cork dimensions, the air inflow will have twice the impact on a half bottle.

The lower the cellar humidity, the greater the driving force for evaporation. Herwatt explains how the cork is affected by dry cellar conditions: “Corks can be very hydroscopic; they will gain moisture or lose moisture depending on the humidity in the atmosphere. There is 100% humidity in the ullage space that is keeping the wine end of the cork moist. In a dry cellar, the top of the cork would tend to dry, so there would be an ever so slight migration of wine towards the outside of the bottle.”

Brierly feels that humidity is as important as temperature: “If possible, I think it should be 70% or 75%. It means that your labels will be a little damp and sometimes illegible, but I’d rather preserve the wine in the bottle than the appearance of the label. Real connoisseurs will take the bad label, as long as the fill level in the bottle is good.”

When asked about a damp-stained label that is falling off being a positive, Seysses, who buys and sells wine at auction responds: “I much prefer a label in bad shape than a label in good condition, assuming the fill level is correct. I am more scared of an old wine with a label in good shape.”

Ullage: Bordeaux vs. Burgundy vs. California

Contrary to the widely held opinion that Pinot Noir is not nearly as robust as Bordeaux, Brierly has found that Burgundy with low fill levels does not deteriorate to the extent that Bordeaux does. “They can be interesting and exciting and very palatable even with quite low fill levels,” he says, adding that ullage doesn’t affect the auction price of Burgundy as much as it does Bordeaux. “People tend to be accepting of lower fill levels in Burgundy. They are more willing to take a risk, because they can be extraordinary and because it’s Burgundy - there is so much less of it.”

According to Kevin Swersey of the Connoisseur’s Advisory Group, ullage is a bigger issue with Burgundy. “Generally speaking, older Burgundies have more ullage than older Bordeaux. Why? I don’t know. And certainly, the old California wines have the least ullage of any wines I’ve ever seen,” he says.

Christophe Rolland, National Sales Manager for Domaine Leroy is not certain that Burgundy inherently loses more wine during storage. He points out that since Leroy attracts more speculators than drinkers, “It would be interesting to see the mileage on a bottle of Burgundy. The wine could have been in five wine cellars by the time you got it.” As soon as you see a wine get a high rating, the chase is on, but buyers don’t look at the source. All it takes is a bad trip by DHL for one day.”

Temperature Fluctuations

Higher cellar temperatures speed up the chemical reactions that mature and ultimately spoil a wine. And the higher the temperature, the greater the driving force for evaporation and the potential for the introduction of air. How do fluctuations in temperature affect a wine’s evolution?

At Domaine Dujac, the seasonal temperature variation is 46°F to 61°F. The cellar at Château Margaux varies from 52°F to 65°F between summer and winter and according to Pontallier is typical of the cellars of other Bordeaux first growths. These fluctuations may in fact help a wine’s evolution by introducing small amounts of air needed to polymerize tannins and reduce astringency.

As cellar temperatures fluctuate, the wine expands and contracts, alternately compressing and relieving the original 10-15mm headspace left at bottling. As temperature increases, the headspace is compressed, forcing the air out between the cork/glass interface. As the wine cools and contracts, since the cork isn’t pulled in, air is sucked back into the bottle.

For long term aging, the best advice is to maintain a cellar temperature of about 55°F, as a wine refrigerator or custom cellar does. But while this might favor more fragile Burgundy, it could be detrimental to Bordeaux, which often benefits from small amounts of oxygen.

Pontallier remarks that very little is known about the effects of temperature fluctuations in a natural underground cellar: “We don’t know exactly; we guess that some air is introduced. [But] it’s impossible to measure and so we don’t know exactly what happens and if what happens is necessary or not. What we do know is that such a cellar has been used for storing our bottles for two centuries and that we are reasonably happy with the results.”
There are many elements to consider in the preservation of these older vintages. What’s certain is that the benefit is worth the time and effort. “The most moving part of my drinking experiences,” says Pontallier, “is with old wines; it’s extraordinary, nothing comparable happens with young wines, it’s a different world of complexity and refinement.”

Q. Is price a good indicator of quality?

A: Price is related to many factors; unfortunately the quality in the bottle is just one.

A freelance writer and photojournalist, Jordan Ross has been published in Wine Spectator, Wines & Vines, Global Vintage Quarterly and Practical Winery & Vineyard. Jordan currently works for Pasternak Wine Imports in Harrison NY. 

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