Perhaps you’ve recently come across an old bottle of wine, one that’s been sitting in storage for a little longer than you’d like. No wine-lover in their right mind would ever want to waste a delicious red or refreshing white wine, but you could be forgiven for being concerned. Before sitting down to enjoy this questionable bottle, it’s only smart to know what the consequences might be. Will drinking old wine make you sick? And how can you even tell? Does Champagne go bad, and what happens if you were to drink old bubbly?
Any wine enthusiast needs to know how to identify old wine or wine which has gone bad. There are so many different processes that could affect (and ruin) the flavor of your bottle, so you’ll need to be familiar with the signs. It’s equally important that you know the consequences of drinking old wine, as for a wine bottle to make you sick would be downright heartbreaking.
Drinking too much wine can have definite ill-effects, something we wine-lovers know all too well. But what’s the difference between a good old-fashioned hangover from too-easily drinkable wine, and more sinister repercussions from an out-of-date bottle?
Therefore, the first thing you’ll need to know is how to tell if a wine has gone bad. Winemaking is a highly-developed and incredibly detailed process, it’s both scientific and artful. Due to so many changeable elements, there are a lot of things that can go wrong in the process. This is why we’ll also explain why it is that wine sometimes gets too old, or goes bad for other reasons.
How to tell if a wine has gone bad
There are several easy ways to detect if a bottle of wine is too old to drink, and anyone can successfully use them. All you need are a few working senses, and you’ll be able to tell when your wine has gone bad. Many faults and flaws in red or white wine can be detected by smelling the liquid, and you may also be able to tell by sight as well. Of course, a wine which has gone bad will also be easily spotted upon tasting the drink, so it isn’t hard to tell the difference between a good wine and an old one.
1. If you notice the hue of your bottle is browner than expected, then it’s a sign that the wine has gone bad. When wine is exposed to air, it oxidizes, and this can alter its color. This applies to both red and white wine. Red wine will lose some of its vibrancy and may look more brown than red or purple. White wine also can take on a browner color when it’s too old. In aged wines, it’s more common for the color to brown and doesn’t necessarily mean the bottle is ruined. However, in younger wines, it’s a well-known sign that the contents of your bottle have been exposed to too much air, which can happen either at home or during the bottling process.
2. One result of wine that has gone bad is unwanted carbonation. If you’re expecting a wine to be still, but are confronted with a few unexpected bubbles, this is a telltale sign that fermentation is happening inside the bottle. If there’s some kind of further fermenting happening after you’ve already purchased a bottle of wine, it’s not a good sign. If you flat wine has fizz, then it’s likely gone bad.
3. The easiest way to tell if a wine is old is by the aroma. If you smell anything unsavory in a bottle of wine, it’s a sign that is won’t be very nice to drink. There are so many different details you can look for in a wine’s aroma to give you clues about if it has gone bad, you might smell that it’s corked, or like vinegar. We’ll go into more detail about which smell means what, but remember how important our noses are when it comes to wine.
4. If you taste something unpleasant in a bottle of wine, then there’s a good chance it’s too old to drink. Similarly, if there’s little to no taste at all in your bottle, then, unfortunately, you just might have left it in your cellar for too long. If you’re questioning the taste of a wine, then a quick sniff should be able to confirm your suspicions of a bottle that’s gone bad.
Why does wine go bad?
There are numerous reasons why a bottle of wine can go bad, so we’ll explain the most common. Some are due to exposure to oxygen, or the introduction of a bacteria or yeast that you don’t want in your bottle of wine. Bad wine can also be caused by microbes and chemical imbalances, and faulty corks or seals.
If you notice an unpleasant smell in your wine similar to band-aids, a barnyard, farm animals or manure, this is a sign of too much Brett, or Brettanomyces. This yeast bacteria add a pleasant complexity to your wine in small doses, but too much will ruin the bottle. Brett in wine is often caused by poor hygiene in the winery, although the grapes used by winemakers can also be the source of this fault.
Every wine enthusiast needs to know how to tell if wine is corked. If your wine has a cork taint, you might be able to smell a wet cardboard aroma, even like a wet dog. As cork is a natural material, it isn’t as reliable and consistent as man-made materials. It’s understandable that faults in the cork in your wine bottle sometimes occur, and are beyond the winemakers’ control. If you smell something that makes you think the wine is corked, it’s due to a chemical called TCA. Trichloranisole is a chemical that might be left behind in the cork by mold (even if the mold is no longer there) and creates a highly unpleasant aroma.
Even a tiny trace of TCA can cause negative flavors in your wine, enough to make the bottle undrinkable. A very low level of cork taint can strip your wine of good flavors, without exhibiting the bad smells. If you’re drinking an aged bottle of wine, don’t panic if you see mold on top of the cork. Usually, this is confined to the part of the cork that never comes into contact with the wine, and under no circumstance means the bottle is corked and undrinkable. Remember, a corked wine only refers to the presence of TCA; old cork which may have broken apart and fallen into your bottle doesn’t mean the wine is ruined.
Wine and oxidation
Arguably the most common reason for wine to go bad is oxidation. If too much air (and oxygen) comes into contact with your wine, a chemical interaction takes place. The acetaldehyde in the brew converts to acetic acid, essentially turning your wine into vinegar. This can lead to smell like nail polish remover, a fault called volatile acidity (VA). Like Brett, a small amount of VA isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it can improve your wine by making more complex flavors. However, too much can lead to an unpleasant vinegary taste. This oxidation process is also what causes the brown appearance of older wine.
There are less common reasons for wine to go bad, such as the formation of sulfur, and other yeasts and bacteria. If a wine gets too little oxygen during the winemaking process, it can develop sulfur compounds. This can make the wine smell like burnt rubber, cooked cabbage, or rotten eggs. This highly unpleasant smell is unmistakable, caused during the process of fermentation. Another microbial fault makes the wine smell mousy, caused by spoiled yeasts and lactic acid.
If your wine undergoes additional fermentation in its bottle, usually due to storing at an incorrect temperature, this can also cause the wine to go bad. If your wine has no aroma at all, this can also be to do with its temperature.
What happens if you drink old wine?
You might be worried about drinking old wine, now you know about all these tiny details which can ruin it. Fortunately, although all these flaws will make your wine taste bad, none of them are harmful when ingested. If you can get past the smell of wet cardboard, then corked wine won’t make you ill. The same goes for flat wine which fermented to have fizz; you can simply enjoy the wine with more bubbles than expected.
Yeast bacteria and microbial flaws will do you no harm if you drink a glass of bad wine, although they certainly won’t taste great either. Oxidized wine which has turned brown and tastes like vinegar also won’t make you sick. However, oxidation can cause acetic acid in the wine, which can feel like burning or stinging in the mouths of some wine drinkers.
Although it smells terrible, sulfur compounds in your wine actually don’t ruin the bottle. Most bottles only need to be opened and left to sit for a while, and the aroma will disappear. If it doesn’t you can even push the process a little further. An old copper penny, or similar copper object, can be added to your wine. This will react with sulfur compounds and almost always completely eliminated the smell. After that, you can relax and enjoy your wine!
Drinking old and aged wine
There’s a big difference between old wine; wine that has been kept too long, and aged wine; a wine made specially to be stored for a long time before drinking. If you’re drinking a special bottle of time aged wine, you’ll need a different approach than when you drink a regular bottle. Firstly, it’s a good idea to stand the bottle upright for several days before consuming it.
This will allow any sediment, or broken cork, (both of which are common in aged wine) to settle at the bottom of your bottle. The wine will be much more pleasant without any floating bits. Decanting wine is also a must when it’s an older bottle, as sediment is bitter tasting and the wine will benefit from exposure to the air.
Although when storing you want to prevent a wine’s exposure to oxygen, it’s best to let it breathe before drinking. Decanting helps with this, as does letting the bottle sit open for a day or two. Don’t be upset if an aged wine doesn’t taste fantastic straight away; once it’s had time to breathe, the flavors will be much more pronounced.
How to prevent wine from going bad
Old wine is very disappointing, but you can take a number of steps to prevent your hard-earned bottles from going bad. Properly storing your wine will make it last much longer, so you can enjoy red or white, opened or unopened, for longer than before. You need to know how long red wine lasts, as well as white and sparkling wines, so you know when to drink bottles before they get too old. Read on to find out the best techniques for prolonging the life of your wine cellar.
Storing opened wine
Opened wine can last several days to a week before getting too old to drink, but only if you take the necessary precautions. Even something as simple as re-corking the wine bottle after each pour can make a big difference. You can use one of the best wine bottle stoppers to help with this, for the short term there are many stylish options. Using a refrigerator to keep temperatures down will also stop wine from getting old as fast, slowing down the chemical processes like oxidation which spoil it.
You should store opened wine upright to minimize the surface area of the liquid. If stored on its side, a partially drunk bottle of wine has a much greater surface area, allowing for more oxidizing interactions to take place and making your wine go old faster. Never store any wine, opened or otherwise, next to a window. Any sun exposure can cause discoloration as well as ruining the flavor. Always use a cool and dark place to store wine bottles.
We all know red wine should be drunk at a warm temperature, so how can you store it in a fridge? You can use lukewarm water to gently raise the temperature of a red before drinking, so you don’t have to drink it cold. Just make sure you do this gradually; any sudden change in temperature can damage and spoil red wine.
One high-tech option for making your wine last longer is using a Coravin wine preserver. This fantastic device extracts wine though the cork from the bottle and replaces it with argon gas, so there’s never any contact with oxygen. This way, you can enjoy your wine without ever opening the bottle, allowing you to make a single bottle last for as long as you can resist it!
Storing unopened wine
Most wine enthusiasts buy bottles regularly, and not always to drink right away. What could be worse than storing a special bottle for a year or two, only to open it and find that it’s too old, and has gone bad? Don’t worry, there are plenty of ways to make your unopened wine last for longer.
As with opened wine, always store your bottles at a cool temperature. The perfect temperature is between 40 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit, anything over 70 risks spoiling your wine by aging it too fast. This is less important for younger wines, but paramount when it comes to aged bottles. You should also not let your wine get too cold, and especially do not allow it to freeze. Wines can be kept in your refrigerator for a couple of months, but any longer could dry out the corks and lead to further problems. Again, as with opened bottles, always avoid sudden changes in temperature.
It’s always best to choose a dark place for your wine collection’s long term storage. Light, particularly sunlight, can degrade and damage wine. The UV light is what causes the wine to spoil, which can be emitted from some household light bulbs too, so it’s best just to store in the dark. If nothing else, always keep wine away from windows.
Storing wines horizontally is the traditional method for a reason. It helps prevent the cork from drying out, as well as being the most space-efficient way to store wine bottles. Try to keep any movement, and especially vibration, to a minimum in unopened wine, as this can disturb the sediment. There are also theories among sommeliers that vibrations speed up the chemical reactions which lead to the aging of wine, so it’s best to keep shaking to a minimum.
So what happens if you drink old wine? Well, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll get sick, or suffer serious adverse effects. It’s possible that acetic acid could cause a slight stinging sensation in your mouth, but in reality, a foul-tasting wine is the worst consequence by far.
Luckily, there are so many precautions you can take to prevent a wine from getting old and spoiling, so just follow our simple guide and enjoy every single glass of wine.
Bonus tip: Check out this useful video on how to tell if your wine is corked!