Which is worse for a wine: leaky, protruding or sunken cork?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Which is the worst-case scenario for a cork: seepage/leaking, protruding cork or sunken/depressed cork?

—Jasper, Hong Kong

Dear Jasper,

While all of those can be signs of a wine that may be damaged, you really don’t know if there’s anything wrong until you open a bottle and taste the wine. If I found a bottle in my cellar with any of those conditions, while I might be a little concerned, I’d still open them up and hope for the best.

Protruding, sunken (or “depressed”) and leaking corks are all quite worrisome, and any wine suffering from these red flags should be noted as such when sold at auction. Of course, minor variances of a single millimeter or so in cork positioning can simply be a product of the corking process—say, a slight increase or decrease in pressure in a corking machine, or an aggressive hand corker.

Protruding corks may indicate that the wine was exposed to heat. Heat causes liquids to expand, and when that happens inside a wine bottle, the only way for it to go is out. That can cause the cork to be pushed out, or wine to seep out around the cork.

Depressed corks are less common, and can be caused by several different scenarios, starting with the aforementioned over aggressive cork insertion. It could also be a sign that the wine's temperature has fluctuated drastically: Just as a wine expands after getting too hot, it can contract as it cools back down, sucking the cork back in with it. It’s just as likely that a depressed cork is a sign that the cork was a little loose, or has shrunken due to becoming dried out, perhaps because the bottle was stored upright. In that scenario, the wine may suffer from oxidized or nutty notes.

But to answer your question, I’m most concerned about a cork that has leaked. That usually means that either the cork was loose to begin with and some wine got out (meaning that some air most likely got in), or that it was exposed to heat so much that the wine expanded past the cork. The former scenario could result in an oxidized wine, and the latter could result in a “cooked” wine, where the fresh fruit flavors have turned baked or stale. Of course, it's also entirely possible that the wine is completely fine. You never know until you open the bottle: Trust your nose, trust your palate, and try not to judge a wine by its cork.

—Dr. Vinny

Closures Corks Wine Flaws Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

What is “reverse osmosis” in relation to wine? How and why is it used?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the science (and the motivation) behind the …

Nov 28, 2022

I need advice on Thanksgiving wines. Which wines pair best with turkey and sides?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny offers advice on selecting wines for the Thanksgiving …

Nov 21, 2022

What is a “second wine”?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the "second wine" concept and what it means in …

Nov 14, 2022

Is it bad if an old bottle of wine has sediment in it?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains that sediment happens—and how to deal with it.

Nov 7, 2022

Is it OK to change my mind about a wine after I've approved a sommelier to serve it?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains that there's a reason that sommeliers show …

Oct 31, 2022

How should I organize a tasting of 4 wines paired with 4 chocolates?

Wine Spectator's resident wine expert Dr. Vinny offers suggestions for organizing food and …

Oct 24, 2022