How to assess a bottle of wine

Have you been holding a wine for many years, did you receive a vintage wine gift or have you inherited one or more exclusive vintage wines? Then you might wonder if you’re holding a fortune. We will advise you in appraising your wine by its bottle, heritage and taste. In this blogpost we take a closer look at the condition of the bottle itself and the wine at first sight.

The storage room

First of all: the storage conditions have a large impact on the condition of the wine and its bottle. Especially exclusive vintage wines, which are set aside for long-term storage, should be cellared with care. The orientation of the bottle (which should be horizontal at all times), absence of light, humidity level, temperature and vibrations influence the quality of the wine and the bottle. Of course the previous storage conditions are not always known but the fill level and appearance of vintage wine bottles reveal more than you might think.    

The fill level

The fill level or ullage is the space between the wine and the bottom of the cork and is of the utmost importance as it can determine the condition of a vintage wine. Cork is not completely airtight and the fill level will change over time because the wine ‘breathes’ through the cork as it matures. So over the years the wine will naturally evaporate and the amount of wine will decrease. Additionally leaky corks, bad storage conditions, high temperatures … may affect the ullage negatively.

To determine whether the fill level is normal or rather high, we have to take the shape of the bottle into account. For example the bottles of vintage French wines Bordeaux, Burgundy and others all have a very specific shape:

Fill levels for Bordeaux bottles

  • Base neck is the bottom part of the neck and a good level for wine of any age. It’s the standard ullage for recent or older wines, and with wines older than 25 years good to exceptional.
  • Very top shoulder is an acceptable level for wines from the 60’s and 70’s.
  • Top shoulder is a good level for wines over 25 years of age but does have a small risk of oxidised content.
  • Upper shoulder is common for wines over 40 years of age but with younger wines indicates poor storage conditions or cork failure.
  • Mid shoulder is not an unusual level for wines produced before 1960 but may suggest poor storage conditions or signs of cork deterioration. A bigger risk for drinking.
  • Low shoulder is not a good level for investment wines and indicates bad storage conditions and/or the cork having reached the end of its lifespan. An increased risk to taste.

Fill levels for Burgundy bottles

  • < 2 cm is an excellent fill for wines of any age.
  • < 3 cm is just perfect for wines up to 20 years.
  • < 3-5 cm is a standard fill for wines between 20 and 40 years.
  • < 5-6 cm is an acceptable level for wines over 40 years but with younger wines indicates poor storage conditions or cork failure.

The capsule

At one time wine bottles needed covering to protect the cork from being gnawed by rodents or cork-boring bugs. Historically these capsules were made of lead, which was later to be discovered poisonous and in 1996 formally banned - today capsules are made from tin, aluminium or polyethylene. An exclusive vintage wine bottle with an impeccable capsule indicates good storage conditions and benefits the appraisal. If the capsule shows white spots it indicates corrosion and a cork soaked in wine. We also investigate the two perforations in the capsule with a magnifying glass to check the authenticity.    

Vintage wine labels

An exclusive vintage wine with a damaged label is hard to resell as most auction houses and collectors won’t accept these bottles. If you buy exclusive vintage wines with the intent to resell them later as an investment, always choose a vintage wine bottle with a pristine label. It even may have some small wine stains, which is common and nothing to really worry about. Yet if you want to save money and enjoy a good wine yourself you shouldn’t let a lesser label stop you.

Invented in 1818 the wine label introduced a way to authenticate the origin of the wine. The wine label is a crucial element of the bottle but easily damaged by transport or poor storage conditions. However, an imperfect label doesn’t mean the wine itself is bad. On the contrary: good storage conditions comprise high humidity and this - especially over a long period - will affect the label. Older wine bottles with pristine labels are truly exceptional and thus much wanted by collectors, which raises the value. Yet, a perfect old label also indicates the wine has been stored in conditions that are too dry.

Professional wine appraisal

Curious about the value of that exclusive wine you own? Or do you have a vintage wine for sale? The appraisers of Belgium Wine Watchers give you an accurate and honest estimation and take the time to explain the value of your wines. We appreciate your trust in our company and handle your questions with discretion.  

Interested in an appraisal?

Contact us for more information or make an appointment.

  • Exclusive vintage wines
  • Fill level wine

Back to list