I have to confess that I have a tendency to forget that not everybody knows what a 3.5 centimeter (cm) level on a Burgundy bottle looks like or understands why slight signs of past seepage and chipped wax capsules on 1990 Leroy bottles are perfectly normal. It is one of the downsides of having spent the past twenty year cataloging wine collections for auction. Of course I am often in the minority and not everyone knows these things, so I organized some examples to demonstrate for HDH staff some bottle conditions that are normal for certain, well-stored, wines but that nonetheless must be noted in our catalog descriptions.
Seminar Topic 1: Ullage on Burgundy Bottles
Even for bottles kept in excellent storage conditions, it is normal for a small amount of wine to evaporate through the cork after decades in the cellar. This is commonly referred to as ullage. At HDH, it is our policy to express Burgundy levels in centimeters from the bottom of the cork. Not all corks are created equal, however, so some wines may show slightly more evaporation than others. It is common to see a variety of levels in a case of twelve bottles over a certain age (e.g., 20 years or older).
Here is a quick overview of our standards on ullage:
- A level 3 cm or better is considered excellent for a wine of any age and will not be mentioned in the catalog
- A level 4 cm or better for a wine that is 25 years old or older is considered very good
- A level as low as 5 cm is considered acceptable for sale
- A level lower than 5 cm may be judged acceptable for Burgundy older than 30 years
In addition to checks on level, all corks are checked for firmness and the colors are checked for brightness, clarity and consistency.
Topic 2: Old, Large Format Bottles from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti from the 1970s
We received several 1970, ’71 and ’76 DRC large format bottles (three-liter and six-liter) from the Harris Cellar that appeared to have had their original Do maine applied wax capsules replaced at some point after release. Typically, any bottle that has been altered after release (e.g., re-waxed) is not considered acceptable for sale at HDH. However, given the amount of information we had from this sale about the wine’s authenticity, we made an exception and we consulted with John Hart as well as others on the matter.
What we learned from our research was that in the early- to mid-1970s, DRC wines were packed so tightly in their wooden boxes that, in spite of the special care taken in handling and transporting these rarities, many of the large formats arrived at their US importer with badly-damaged wax capsules. John Hart confirmed that this was a common occurrence when he operated the Chicago Wine Co. Ultimately, the Domaine resolved the packaging problem for subsequent vintages but some of the wines that were already in the US were re-waxed prior to sale. Both John Hart and Wilson-Daniels, the sole importer of DRC wines for decades, re-waxed many large format DRC wines from this period, which explains the lack of a Domaine stamp on some of these bottles.
Topic 3: 1990 Domaine Leroy Wines
The 1990 Leroy wines provide another unique example of bottle conditions that are only acceptable under a very narrow set of circumstances. Signs of past seepage and chipped capsules are so common with 1990 Leroy wines that it is practically ubiquitous. Across the industry, it is a generally-accepted belief that the 1990 Leroy wines were intentionally over-filled, which often caused a small amount of wine that had been absorbed into the cork to escape and pool under the top of the wax capsule. This may cause the capsules to bulge, chip and leak small amounts of wine. The majority of regular Leroy buyers understand this as a normal and acceptable condition, and anyone who has had the good fortune of tasting a 1990 Leroy wine will tell you that they are among the greatest wines in the world for current drinking.
I realize this information can be a bit technical, and not everyone has the luxury of attending a condition seminar in our warehouse so if you ever have any questions about any of the wines on offer in an HDH auction please contact me – I am always happy to help.