Can wine go bad?
The short answer is yes, wine can and occasionally does go bad. However, it is not as simple as just putting an expiration date on the bottle. Every bottle of wine is different and the life of the bottle can be affected by the varietal, winemaking techniques, how the wine is transported, how the wine is stored, and what kind of cork is used. Many of these can result in wine faults.
Wine has a very short shelf-life after opening. Wine will be no good after being open for longer than a week at the most. The shelf-life of an open bottle depends on the varietal, style, and whether it is properly stored or not. Check out the tips at the end of the article on how to properly store an opened bottle and which wines keep the best.
Why does it go bad?
Wine can go bad for a variety of reasons: Here are a few variables that can have an effect on the quality of wine when you are ready to open the bottle.
Aww…we all love our French, Italian, Spanish, and Australian wines. But they have a ways to go before they get to our wine shelves. Truck, train, plane, boat…your favorite wines have quite the journey and sometimes it can be a little rough along the way.
Transporting the world’s greatest commodity (in our opinion) is like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The wine needs to be in a dark place that isn’t too hot or too cold. Having large temperature variations can start to breakdown the wine.
Once the wine gets to its designated location, it is up to the restaurant or store to store the wine properly. Keep the wine on its side (for those that have corks) in order to keep the cork wet. A dry cork can break and shrink, exposing the wine to the air and bacteria.
Wines should also be kept away from direct sunlight or strong lights. The temperature of the room should be at a steady and cool temperature….think movie theater temperature.
Dust on the bottle is fine but check the vintage date. If the wine is past its prime, pass and grab something more recent.
Cork and bottling material
Screw caps may have a “cheap” reputation, but they really protect your wine from wine faults like cork taint, oxidation, and bacterial issues. In fact, screw caps hardly have any of these problems at all.
Not all corks are created equal. Some are better than others and all cork batches should be tested for TCA (a really long compound name) that causes the wine to go bad. Corks can also be made out of sugar cane (less risk of TCA). The quality of the cork is important to make sure there is less risk of cork taint or other issues.
When in doubt…go screw cap!
Fun fact: Did you know that you can get custom screw caps made just for your wine? A winemaker can get a certain screw cap that will allow a certain amount of oxygen into the wine over a certain amount of time. This helps to age the wine at a steady pace.
Quality and balance
The overall quality and balance of the wine has a lot to do with how well it will age. As wines age the tannin and acidity levels decrease. While this can soften out a once harsh Cabernet Sauvignon into a delicate and fruity wine, this can also make mediocre wines taste flat and sad.
White wines are ageable if they have a relatively low alcohol level, a tad more sugar content, and lots of acid. Ageable white wines include Riesling, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer. Avoid ageing wines like Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, and most sparkling wines.
Red wines are ageable if they have high acidity, high tannins, and a robust flavor profile. Ageable red wines include Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Avoid ageing red wines like Pinot Noir or Beaujolais.
If the bottle has been sitting around long enough to out-live its ideal aging zone then the quality of the wine will go downhill the longer it ages. Not all wines get better with age.
For example, Riesling is a white wine that ages well. We recommend drinking it from 1-5 years or up to 10 years for sweet Rieslings. On the other hand, Sauvignon Blancs are a white wine that does not age well. Drink Sauvignon Blanc immediately, or up to two years after bottling.
If the wines are aged past this ideal date, then the wines will start to deteriorate slowly. Tannins, acidity, flavors, and aromas start to break down and lessen. Crisp, juicy, and acidic whites will become flat and boring.
Fun fact: White wines get darker as they age and red wines get lighter.
How to tell if your wine has gone bad: 3 signs that your wine is bad
- Look- Is your wine fizzy, is there stuff floating at the top, does the color seem off?
- Smell- Is your wine lacking fruit smells or aromas all together? Does it smell like bandaids, wet paper, or animal?
- Taste- Does it taste flavorless? Is there no hint of tannin or acid? Does it just taste gross?
These can be signs that your wine has gone bad.
Tip: Most places will replace your wine for you. Keep your receipts after you purchase the wine. Within the next day or so after opening a bad bottle, bring it back to the shop you bought it at and ask for an exchange or refund.
Common Wine Faults
What is a wine fault? A wine fault is a defect in wine that occurs from poor winemaking practices or improper storage. Most wine faults are not harmful to our health, it just makes the wine taste bad. We as wine drinkers consume a lot of faulted wine, either because we do not know it is faulted or because it isn’t very noticeable.
Here are the most common wine faults and how to detect them.
What is it? Oxidation is the result of too much exposure to oxygen. This can be from poor winemaking practices or improper storage. It is the most common wine fault and has a higher risk to occur in older corked wines.
How to tell? The wines will look and taste dull like the color and flavors have been stripped. They will taste like vinegar and rotten apples.
Can you fix it? No.
What is it? Cork taint is a chemical contaminant that can be found along the winery production line and in corks. It is important for wineries to test batches of cork for this chemical before using them. Modern technology has helped to limit cork taint and you do not usually need to worry about it in wines that are screw cap or boxed.
How to tell? Cork taint has a very distinct smell of wet dog, wet cardboard, or moldy newspaper.
Can you fix it? No. It is best to throw the bottle out or exchange it at the location of purchase.
What is it? This wine fault isn’t having to do with winemakers adding in too many sulfites, which are used to stabilize and preserve the wine. This sulfur compound, dihydrogen sulfide, is a by-product of a stressful fermentation.
How to tell? There will be a rotten egg or cooked cabbage smell.
Can you fix it? Minor cases can be fixed by decanting your wine.
What is it? Bubbly! This is when your wine goes through an unintentional secondary fermentation while in the bottle.
How to tell? Your wine will be fizzy.
Can you fix it? You can try to shake the bubbles out of the wine, or just enjoy the bubbles!
What is it? Cooked wine is the result of poor storage. Wines that are in hot temperatures for too long, such as sitting in a parked car in mid-summer, can become cooked.
How to tell? The wine will smell like old jam or a weird sugary nut. This smell will be very noticeable and probably not confused with other nutty or preserved fruit smells sometimes found in wines.
Can you fix it? No, but it can be avoided by storing your wine properly.
What is it? Lightstrike is UV damage which is a result of wines being stored in direct sunlight or near a window. It is more common in white wines since they do not have the protection from the darker bottles.
How to tell? The wine will smell stripped of its normal aromas and smell of musty wet wool.
Can you fix it? No, but it can be avoided by properly storing your wine in a cool and dark place.
What is it? Bacterial colonies can sometimes live through the fermentation process and invade your wine. Small amounts of bacteria can add some complexity and are sometimes welcomed. However, an angry and overgrown bacteria colony can result in a wine fault.
How to tell? Bacterial tainted wine is often described as mousy. There will be a small rodent cage smell, like your childhood Guinea pigs.
Can you fix it? No.
How long does wine last?
Most of the foods we buy nowadays have an expiration date on it. Many people think that because liquor doesn’t go bad, neither does wine. But does wine spoil? Yes, it can. Does wine expire? Not necessarily, although some are meant to be aged more than others and the quality of the wine can go downhill once it has reached its peak aging period.
Can you still drink it?
Most wines that are faulted or have gone bad will not harm you if you drink it. But hey, life’s too short to drink bad wine.
How do you store wine after you open the bottle?
Before opening, keep your wine in a cool and dark place, out of direct sunlight or near bright lights. After opening, pump the air out with a wine pump and stopper the wine. Store white and sparkling wines in the fridge and red and dessert wines in a cool and dark place. Keep for no longer than a week.
Which wines keep the longest?
After opening, dessert wines keep the longest. The sugar content helps to preserve the wine. These can be kept for up to two weeks if properly stored.
Our favorite bubbly wines have the shortest life after opening. The wine will stay good for a few days, however, the bubbles will die off within a day or so.
Looking back on your wine adventures, can you remember a time where you drank bad wine but didn’t realize what had happened to it at the time? Now you know!