How to recognise if your wine has gone bad
So, you know whether to dump it, or drink it.
Look out for an orange or red-brown colour, with vinegar and sour notes in white wines or lack of aroma and flavour in red wines.
It’s happened to the best of us: you want a glass of wine on Monday, then it sits on the bench until Friday – and now it smells and tastes sour or flat. Oxidation occurs due to bacteria in the wine, which turns the sugar and alcohol into acetic acid when overexposed to air.
Wines can be excessively oxidised during the winemaking process too, and sometimes show oxidation from the moment you open the bottle. Oxygen is a vital part of the winemaking process as it helps with complexity and character. It’s the key factor in why decanting is effective (you can read more about that here). But just as your cut apple will discolour if left out, oxidised wines will turn from deep orange to red-brown, and sadly it can’t be saved or reinvigorated so has to go down the sink.
One small tip to extend the life of a wine you’ve opened but don’t want to finish? Seal it as tightly as possible and store it in your fridge. The cool temperature will slow the effects of oxidation, which may give you an extra day but not much more.
Look out for wine that tastes like it was exclusively made with dried fruits. You might find jammy or stewed characters in reds, and brown discolouration or nuttiness in whites.
Cooked wine, also referred to as maderised (from the method by which Madeira is made), is the result of excessive heat exposure or ongoing temperature variation. Heat exposure or variation can happen anywhere, from sitting in a hot truck during transit, to sitting near your stove at home. If heat has expanded the air inside the bottle, you may also see some visual cues, like the screw cap is popped up or the cork is partially dislodged.
There aren’t any certain varieties or styles of wine that are more or less susceptible to being “cooked”, but there are ways to avoid it happening in your own home (other than investing in a proper cellar or wine cabinet). Always store your wine out of direct sunlight, and away from appliances like fridges, the oven, or the stove top. Anywhere dark, cool and dry is preferred, but a big part of this comes down to temperature fluctuation. The least amount of varying temperatures, the better.
As to whether you drink it? Again, it won’t cause any harm, but it comes down to how cooked it is, and what your palate can tolerate.
Look out for some pretty grim aromatic adjectives, including dank, mouldy, and wet (like a musty basement or a sodden dog). The wine will also show basically no fruit.
Cork taint is most commonly the result of airborne fungi and bacteria creating a nasty chemical compound called 2,4,6-Trichloroanisole, which contaminates wine as soon as they come into contact with one another. TCA can also be found in oak barrels, so can affect an entire batch.
Cork taint can affect a wine on a wide spectrum: strong taint will be easy to spot but weak taint can really be summarised by a lack of character. If you were promised a multi-layered fruit-forwarded Syrah with great structure but your wine tastes like something you’d drink out of a plastic cup on an aeroplane, this is a sign of cork taint.
As it can’t be caused by your handling, you should reseal the wine and get in touch with where you bought it for a refund or new bottle. However, if the taint is mild, many wine drinkers choose to simply finish the bottle and put it down to “today I learned what cork taint looks like”. It’s perfectly safe to drink, even if it’s not the sensory experience you were expecting.
Look out for a faded or brown-hued colour, and a wine that smells dusty or lacks fruit on the nose, and freshness, structure and complexity on the palate.
It’s important first off to state that there is a big difference between older wines and old wine, and knowing how a well-matured wine smells and tastes is a great start to understanding this difference. You may have heard wine characters referred to as “primary” and “secondary” by a winemaker or your most nerdy wine-loving friend, and matured or older wines may express fewer primary characters such as fruit but will still be textural and complex, and interesting to drink. Take aged Bordeaux or Cabernet for example: its colour may have faded and its tannins softened, but its more textural and earthier characters will continue to charm.
In comparison, old wine will show very little of anything at all. With a range of differences in palates and preferences, there are certainly no hard rules around when a wine is too old, but if it seems tired or doesn’t express any of the character you expected, you may have hung onto it for just a little too long.
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