What could cause a cork to become saturated with wine while it's still in the bottle?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I opened three bottles recently of the same wine. All three corks were saturated, to the top of the bottle. Two bottles were drinkable, the other was not. What causes corks to be saturated?

—Tricia, Australia

Dear Tricia,

It’s not so much a question of “what”—it’s probably just wine, if you’ll forgive me for being a smart-ass—but rather a question of why a cork might become saturated. You might be dealing with a batch of faulty corks; maybe they weren’t cut to the right size to expand and create a good fit. I’ve also seen corks that were jammed into the neck of the bottle at an odd angle during the bottling process, compromising the seal. Saturation could also be a sign that the wine was exposed to heat, causing the liquid inside the bottle to try to expand beyond the cork. Another explanation could be that at some point in their travels, the wines were stored in a not-humid-enough environment and/or the bottles weren’t kept on their sides, so the corks started to dry out and then became saturated afterward. Also, even with the best storage and handling in the world, a cork might become saturated just from the effects of age.

Whenever I see a leaky or saturated cork, an alarm bell goes off. But as you pointed out, even if a cork is compromised, it doesn’t necessarily mean the wine inside has suffered. I’ve had perfectly delicious wines from bottles with saturated corks, as well as undrinkable ones. The only way to tell is to pour a glass.

—Dr. Vinny

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