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Dear Dr. Vinny,
Which is the worst-case scenario for a cork: seepage/leaking, protruding cork or sunken/depressed cork?
—Jasper, Hong Kong
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.
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