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Ullage is the word used to describe the air space above the wine and under the cork or screw cap. The word comes ultimately from the Latin oculus, "eye", which was used in a figurative sense by the Romans for the bung hole of a barrel. This was taken into French in the medieval period as oeil, from which a verb ouiller was created, to fill a barrel up to the bung hole. (When wine ferments in the barrel, there's a slow loss of liquid due to evaporation through the wood. It's very important to keep the barrels full, as otherwise unwanted bacteria and yeasts can get in and cause nasty side fermentations.)

In turn, a noun ouillage was created, which was the immediate source of our word, first recorded in Norman English about 1300, at first in the sense of the amount of liquid needed to fill a barrel up to the bung hole. By an obvious extension, ullage came to refer to any amount by which a barrel is unfilled, perhaps because some of the contents have been used. And it is also applied to the unfilled air space at the top of a bottle of wine, which in this case is essential to allow for expansion of the contents as the temperature changes.


High fill or Normal fill - Level of young wines. Exceptionally good in wines over 10 years old.

Into neck - Perfectly good for any age of wine. Outstandingly good for a wine of 10 years in bottle.

Mid neck fill - Indicates exceptional storage for any wine. In bottles over 10 years of age, indicates especially good storage conditions. For those over 40 years of age, may indicate a recorked/ reconditioned bottle.

Base neck fill - The fill is at about the bottom of the neck. Indicates excellent storage for any wine. For wines over 25 years of age, indicates exceptional storage conditions. Many producers fill bottles at base neck or lower.

Top shoulder - Fill just down below base neck. A standard fill for wines over 10 years of age. Normal level for any claret 15 years old or older. For wines over 25 years of age, indicates excellent storage conditions.

Upper or high shoulder - A fill just above the midpoint (as measured by volume) of the shoulder of the bottle. Acceptable for any wine over 20 years old. For wines less than this age, may indicate problems with storage conditions. Common for wines over 40 years of age. Exceptional for pre-1940 wines.

Mid shoulder - Not unusual for wines over 40 years of age, but may suggest poor storage condition or early signs of cork failure. Can be at significant risk of being undrinkable and estimates for the value of the wine usually take this into account.

Lower shoulder - Some risk. Low estimates on wine value, usually no reserve at auction.

Low shoulder - This can often be an indicator of poor storage conditions and/or an undrinkable wine. Not normally recommended for consumption. Risky and usually only accepted for sale if wine or label exceptionally rare or interesting. Always offered without reserve and low estimate.

Below low shoulder - Rarely seen. Not acceptable for sale unless a rare sort of bottle. Wine will usually be undrinkable.

Source: worldwidewords.org and others

* Reproduced with permission from Peter Svans

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