Cellar Temperature and Corks


Now, let’s go back and talk a bit more about those corks and the effect rapid swings in temperature can have on them. Corks work as seals in the bottle neck because of their elasticity. A cork is effectively made up of lots of little bubbles of cork cells. This spongy structure expands and contracts like all solids do when the temperature changes. With age the cell walls progressively lose their elasticity, much like our own skin does, though by different means. Rapid temperature swings can cause corks, particularly older corks, to lose their ability to seal properly in the bottle neck, as can really high temps -- like 140F/60C -- but at those temps we would have other problems to worry about!

If you have a fragile cork that has lost elasticity with age and it is put under stress due to rapid temperature swings, it can fail altogether. Not only does this begin to allow air into your bottle of wine, but if the bottle is laying on its side, it can begin to force wine up past the cork (remember: Fluids expand even more than solids when heated). That little path of wine can dry out but now it’s like a dry creek bed in your bottle. Each time there is a pressure increase in the bottle the wine can work its way up a little farther until finally, on day, it makes a great escape.

The truth is that a bottle can begin to leak after just a fairly brief time of mistreatment; we’re talking hours, here. I don’t buy wines with evidence of seepage, and while some unscrupulous retailers are quite effective at dealing with this sort of evidence, there usually are tell tale signs. The capsules tend to be the final arbiter of whether a bottle was a leaker or not. First there are those two little holes, ok maybe on, on the top of the capsule that allows air to leave the empty capsule as it is forced onto the bottleneck.

If you see wine residue in those holes chances are it came up through the cork. It’s worth checking to see how high the fill level is on that kind of bottle though, especially if it’s a new release. Some producers are notorious for over filling their bottles, causing this sort of stuff to happen when the cork is inserted into the neck. This is particularly prevalent in places that are cold. When that bottle gets shipped to someplace warmer the wine expands and forces its way past the cork, even if the storage temperature is still well within the acceptable limits for wine storage.

The other way that some people use to determine the soundness of a particular bottle is to check and see if the capsule spins freely on the neck. I remain very skeptical about the efficacy of this in determining damage to any bottle. Many capsules are just very tight and others, in the past, frequently used some sort of lubricant to help get the capsule on the bottleneck. With time that lubrication tends to turn into glue, not to mention the fact that old capsules, made of lead, and newer capsules, made of aluminum, corrode in damp cellars, helping to further lock them in place on the bottle’s neck.

This article is part of a three part series on cellar temperature and conditions:

I.    What Makes a Great Cellar
II.   Cellar Temperature
III.  Cellar Temperature and Corks

Similar Topic:

Building Wine Cellar Walls

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 6,197

    Good article, Greg, and series. Other issues affecting cork closures may be changes in pressurization, as well. I've carried wine bottles on airplanes (some in the overhead bins for carry-on in the old pre-9/11 days, others with check-in luggage, where temp. change is also a possible factor) directly from wineries and across oceans to home that, when opened up at final destination have seepage down the neck, even as far as the label. This has happened only a handful of times, but more with larger format bottles than with 750mls, for some reason. No eruption punctures in the foil, just seepage under the foil and down the neck. Since they were new releases by the wineries, the foils were in virtually pristine condition.

    In most cases they were wines I was familiar with, or had other versions of the same vintage, and I found that when stored properly after arrival they were effectively the same as other bottles without the seepage, even after five or 10 years. Though in a couple of cases after a longer period of time I thought I detected some minor difference. Wasn't drinking blind, though, so who knows whether I was tricking myself.....

    Perhaps I might suggest that you add a final installment to your series, with case studies of bottles that have demonstrated problems attributable to storage?

    Aug 25, 2010 at 7:28 PM

  • Snooth User: Chris Carpita
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    33093 5,545

    Very informative and clear, thank you Greg, keep the articles about Wine Cellars coming. I like dmcker's suggestion about the fourth installment, it would be nice to see what some of these bottles look like in situ.

    Aug 26, 2010 at 2:46 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Great idea. It will require a bit of time, since I will have to get a few bottles to take pictures of them, but will do!

    Aug 26, 2010 at 3:37 PM

  • Snooth User: Tollig
    558655 4

    Why was my previous comment on the inferior quality of cork as a sealing material removed? In my oppinion screwcaps is a far superior method even for wines that require cellaring, and the reason it is not yet adopted is because producers and consumers alike are catious and also - screw caps are associated with cheap wines meant to be drunk immideately. Not good if you want to be able to get at good price for your product. But with cork you get 5-10% flawed bottles, wich won't please the consumers either.

    Aug 27, 2010 at 8:13 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    I didn't see a previous post here and it was not removed by me. Did you actually see it here or did you go to post it and it disappeared before it was posted?

    Aug 27, 2010 at 8:56 AM

  • Snooth User: Mediaman
    568855 1

    I just had my cellar built and thankfully I seem to have accomplished everything properly. I thank you for this fine series of articles. I can now sleep knowing my wine is sleeping well. Can you possibly give us some knowledge concerning "turning" the bottles. How often should this be accomplished and is there a recommended style or system?

    Aug 31, 2010 at 9:04 PM

  • Snooth User: havabal
    333491 51

    Greg......I can't seem to find anyone with info on 'COOKED WINE'. My question is this: At what temperature, AND FOR WHAT PERIOD OF TIME, do most red wines become noticeably damaged. I have wines shipped to me in Calif. via UPS from wineries in Washington state and Oregon. On a few occasions the temp in the bottles was around 90 degrees, per my wine laser thermometer. These are always very special wines that I want to lay down for a few years in my temperature controlled cellar. Should I be worried about the wine being cooked in transit ?

    Sep 08, 2010 at 6:05 PM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748


    i don't know of any studies done but anecdotally I'd say you have some cooked wines on your hands.

    You can probably enjoy the wines for some months to a year before the damage start to show up but I'd bet some money that it's coming.

    I have had wines delivered to me that were very warm to the touch, probably 90F or maybe more but they were in a van with people so it couldn't have been much more. They weren't terribly expensive so I kept them and drank them over the course of several years. The first bottle was fine, the second 6 months out maybe had something off a bit, or I just saw it because I knew that I was looking for something.

    By 2 years out the wine was noticeably damaged but still pleasant, at three years it sucked.

    I think a wine that is allowed to come to 80F and spends an hour there is damaged. It may be subtly damaged and just never fulfill it's potential, insidiously damaged you could say, but damaged none the less.

    I would contact the wineries and see what they can do. Very sorry to hear about your situation.

    Sep 08, 2010 at 6:23 PM

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