Contrary to popular belief, not all wines improve with age. The vintage bottles coveted by collectors were specifically made to mature over long periods of time. Most wines — even the ones you might buy for an extra-special occasion — should only be stored for a year or two, after which they run the risk of going bad. It’s also possible for a bottle of wine to pass its prime well before its expiration date, which is a devastating realization to make when you’re pouring yourself a glass after a long, hard day. If you’re questioning whether or not your wine is still worth drinking, here’s how to examine it.
How Does Wine Go Bad?
Once a bottle of wine has been opened, it’s on its way to going bad. Uncorking a bottle exposes the wine to air, which slowly oxidizes it. Over time, the air begins to convert acetaldehyde — a volatile compound found in all wines — into acetic acid, gradually turning that wine into vinegar. This is why it’s important that an open bottle of wine be sealed tightly if it’s not going to be fully consumed in a single sitting, ideally using a device that can remove the oxygen from its bottle or whatever container you choose to store it in.
Once sealed tightly, store the wine in the refrigerator; cold temperatures will slow down the oxidation process, but will not stop it. Refrigerating wine may give your bottle an extra day or two, but not much more.
Unopened wine can also go bad, and if you’re building a collection of vintages to age in the comfort of your own home, it’s imperative they’re stored correctly so your heart isn’t broken when you finally pop that cork. Store bottles on their sides so that the cork is always in contact with the wine itself, which will prevent them from drying out. A dry cork will let small amounts of air to seep in, which will slowly oxidize the wine while it languishes in storage.
Keep wine in a cool, dark place where it won’t be subject to extreme temperature swings or have prolonged exposure to sunlight. You don’t need to have a wine cellar; keeping your bottles in a pantry, cupboard, or closet will do just fine.
How to Tell If Your Wine Has Gone Bad
There are three simple steps to being able to tell if your wine is ready to drink, first by sight, then by smell, and finally by taste. Here's what you need to know.
What Does the Wine Look Like?
The first thing to inspect on a bottle of wine is the cork; if it looks like it’s out of place — particularly if it’s been pushed out a bit — there’s a chance that chemical reactions have occurred within the bottle that have created excess gas, dislodging the cork with a build-up of pressure. It could also mean that at some point the wine was overheated for a considerable amount of time, and if you passed high school chemistry, you may remember that heat expands.
Next, pour some wine into a glass and examine it. If you notice any specks of broken cork, odd cloudiness, or looks like it’s been contaminated by any sort of foreign material, throw it out and never look back. Look for tiny bubbles — if your wine is sparkling but you didn’t buy a sparkling wine, it means your wine has undergone a secondary fermentation. If you want to drink your double fermented wine it’s perfectly safe, but you’ll more than likely be disappointed by the strongly sour flavor it has developed.
Hold the wine up to a light and examine its colors. Is the wine vivid, crisp and colorful like a wine should be? Or is it dull, cloudy, or discolored? When wine goes bad it slowly discolors, fading and taking on a yellowish-brownish tint.
If you’re drinking a well-aged vintage a darker color is acceptable, but for younger wine, it is not.
How Does the Wine Smell?
A bad odor is a surefire way to know that your wine is bad — remember, your sense of smell is connected with your sense of taste, so if you find a whiff of wine to be completely repulsive, it will taste just as bad, or worse. However, a spoilt wine will not always emit a strongly offensive odor, so you need to be on the lookout for telltale notes. Aerate the wine by swirling the glass and sniffing the bouquet, looking for a musty, moldy scent; some compare this smell to a damp basement, or a wet dog. If you smell vinegar or rotten eggs, it means your wine is now ripe with sulphur, and should be poured straight down the drain.
How Does It Taste?
If examination by sight and smell doesn’t raise any glaring red flags, you’ll need to make your final decision by actually tasting the wine. There are a few things to look for that will indicate that your wine is bad. If you’re drinking red wine, it shouldn’t be overly sweet (Unless it’s a Port or dessert wine) As mentioned earlier, if a non-sparkling wine is sparkling, something’s off. If there’s a sharp taste akin to vinegar, the wine is no-good. And if it doesn’t taste like something you would actually enjoy drinking, you shouldn’t. Easy peasy.