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How to Tell if a Wine is Bad

How to Tell if a Wine is Bad

Jonas Muthoni

Many wine drinkers are not able to identify whether or not a bottle of wine has gone bad. There are many wine faults that can affect the taste and chemical composition of the wines. Many of them are very subtle, almost undetectable, and have not affected the wine to the point of throwing the whole bottle out.

These faults can happen in the winery, during transportation, and during storage. That is why it is so important to handle wines correctly so that you can avoid these faults.

Many ‘bad wines’ are actually faulted and were never supposed to be that way. Even cheaper wines, under $10, should never taste ‘gross’ or ‘off’.

Learn how to correctly identify wines faults, what to do when you get a faulted wine, and how to avoid this in the future.

Three Signs that your wine is bad

  1. Look- Is your wine fizzy, is there stuff floating at the top, does the color seem off?
  2. Smell- Is your wine lacking fruit smells or aromas all together? Does it smell like bandaids, wet paper, or animal?
  3. Taste- Does it taste flavorless? Is there no hint of tannin or acid? Does it just taste gross?

Common Wine Faults and How to Identify Them

Here are the seven most common wine faults:


Wines that have come into contact with too much oxygen will become oxidized. This can happen from improper storage. For example, storing a bottle upright for long periods of time can dry out the cork, which lets oxygen into the bottle.

Oxidized wines will smell flat and you will not be able to identify the multitude of fruit and herb aromas like normal. Red wines will be more of a brown hue and taste very bitter. White wines will smell like apple cider.


Reduction is the opposite of oxidation and occurs when wines do not get enough oxygen in the bottle. Corks, screw caps, and even boxed wines are designed to let small amounts of oxygen in over a long period of time. This is how the wine ages.

Your wine will smell liked boiled cabbage upon opening. However, if you sense reduction has taken place, decant your wine for a few hours and see if this improves. Most times the wine is not too far gone and some decanting will fix the problem.

“Corked” Wine

Also known as TCA taint, cork taint, or 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, a wine that is corked has been exposed to TCA bacteria.

Wines are exposed to these bacteria in the winery. The bacteria can be on the wine equipment or effect the batches of corks being used. Wines will smell of wet cardboard or a wet dog. Wines that are only slightly affected will just lack aromas all-together and be confused with oxidation.

Avoid corked wines by buying wine from trusted wineries or avoiding corks altogether and purchasing screw-cap wines.

Volatile Acidity

Volatile acidity can be caused by acetic acid or ethyl acetate. The wine smells will be of vinegar or nail polish remover.

This is caused by damaged fruit, low SO2, and poor winery hygiene, especially during bottling.

UV Damage

Also known as light strike, these wines have been exposed to sunlight for too long. Light strike can happen when wines are sitting on store shelves close to bright windows or stored in your house close to windows. Red wine bottles have a bit of protection because the bottles are dark, so white wines are especially prone to this.

Light strike will eventually cause reduction.

You can avoid this by not purchasing ‘shelf-aged’ bottles, meaning they have aged simply by sitting on the store shelf. Instead, buy young bottles and storing them yourself to age, buying Reserve or already-aged wines.

Heat Damage

Also known as cooked wine, these wines have been exposed to heat. Heat damage can happen in a matter of hours. Wines should be kept 50-65 degrees at all times. Wines that reach 80-90 degrees and more start to cook.

The wines will actually smell pretty great. Like ripe fruit, fruit preserves, or caramel. However, the wine taste will be very flat and you will not be able to identify any flavors.

Heat damage causes both red and white wines to turn brown.


Bubbles in a non-sparkling wine are also considered a wine fault. Secondary fermentation is pretty easy to spot as the wine will have some spritz. This can happen when the wines fermentation process was not ended properly.

The wine will also be a bit cloudy from the yeast.

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Fortunately, these wines are still drinkable. Most often there was only a bit of yeast left in the bottle so the wine is only a little bubbly.

What to Do When You Get a Bottle of Faulted Wine

It can be frustrating to buy a bottle of wine or order wine from a restaurant and receive a faulted wine. However, know that this happens and getting a faulted wine once in a while is unavoidable.

If you buy a faulted wine from a wine shop, simply bring it back along with your receipt for a refund or replacement. Do not dump the wine out and then bring the empty bottle in or they will not be able to give you a refund. Bring the bottle back within 30 days of purchase.

If you have had the bottle for months then the store is no longer liable for the fault because the fault could have happened at your own mistake.

If you receive a faulted glass or bottle of wine at a restaurant, kindly wave your server over and point out the fault. Have them open a new bottle of wine for you. While servers should be able to identify an obvious fault, many of them are not trained to do so.

How to Avoid Faulted Wine

  • Shop at a trusted wine shop- Wine shop employees should be trained on how to identify these faults and will be more than happy to refund you or replace the bottle.
  • Avoid wines $10 and under- Many faults occur in cheap wines. Wine faults can be the reason why they are so cheap or the proper care was not taken.
  • Buy screw cap wines- One way to avoid cork taint, oxidation, and reduction is to buy screw-cap wines. Screw caps are very rarely affected by cork taint (the bacteria does not discriminate whether you are a cork or screw-cap) and the caps are specifically designed to allow a certain amount of oxygen in over a certain amount of time.
  • Avoid ‘sale’ wines- Wines that are on sale have a high chance of being faulted. Many of these wines are also older vintages that have simply not sold. Many of these wines are not wines that age well anyways, so they are simply past their prime.
  • Store your wine properly– Keep your wine in a cool, dark place.

I am sure many of you are now looking back at a questionable bottle and realizing that the wine was faulted. Keep in mind that faults happen and you are bound to run into them once in a while. It can be disappointing but make sure to keep your wine rack stocked so you still have a back-up bottle when this does happen.

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.

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