How can I tell if a wine was properly cellared?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

Are there any clues to indicate whether or not a case or bottle of wine was improperly cellared? What if the label is wrinkled, damp or stained? Or the cork has leaked or seems pushed out?

—Jasper, Hong Kong

Dear Jasper,

In general, I recommend not judging a wine by how it looks on the outside, nor judging a wine-advice columnist by how silly they look in their profile picture. I’ve had bottles of wine that looked like they’d been through a war but tasted terrific and bottles that looked pristine but were disappointments. I’ve never been one to speculate: I’d rather open it up and see how it tastes. There’s no cork “forensic file,” but there are some telltale signs to watch for (and others that don't matter at all).

Wine auction houses carefully inspect and note all the cosmetic conditions of a bottle. In these cases, a perfect label can fetch more money than one that is ripped or stained, but not necessarily because the wine inside is better or worse. Appearance counts when it comes to monetary value, but not as much when it comes to wine quality.

A damp or wrinkled label suggests merely that the outside of the bottle was exposed to moisture. It could be from a humid cellar, or it might just be good old-fashioned condensation, which happens when something cool (like a bottle of wine at cellar temperature) is placed in a warmer environment. If the label is severely faded, that could indicate the bottle spent a lot of time exposed to light, which can be a problem, but many labels also simply fade with time.

A stained or ripped label means absolutely nothing about the quality of the wine inside—unless that stain came from wine that leaked out through the cork. Seepage is definitely important to note, as it could indicate that the wine inside the bottle at some point expanded due to excess heat, or that the cork is in someway compromised. Or the wine inside might taste great—there are no guarantees! (Although some companies do now offer heat-sensing technologies which can be packaged on bottles or in wine shipments and can track the temperature of the shipment through the duration of its voyage.)

I’ve scuffed, nicked and torn enough labels in my time to not worry about how pristine they are. Even a little bit of mold on the label is no concern—unless you’re looking to resell your wines at auction.

—Dr. Vinny

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