How to Tell If Your Wine Has Gone Bad
Plus, what to do if it’s already spoiled.
You opened up that bottle of vino you’ve been eyeing in your kitchen and it was simply delicious, but you couldn’t finish it. So, you save it for later. Yet later turns into a week (or, maybe two) and you still haven’t gotten around to it.
Has it spoiled? Can you still drink it? Well, the answer isn’t black and white. There are a few factors that determine whether or not that bottle is done for, or if it can still be savored (even if the quality isn’t as fresh as it was on day one.)
Here’s a hint: Old wine can smell and taste like a bunch of different things—none of them being good, unfortunately. Still, they help us realize just how bad that wine has gotten and can help us choose whether or not to open up a new bottle. Here’s how to tell if your wine is doomed for the trash can.
The Wine Smells Like the Cork
“Probably the biggest culprit for spoiled wine is something called ‘cork taint.’ This effect is when a faulty cork (via a chemical compound flaw) makes the wine smell like corkboard or a wet dog,” says Adam Sweders, the Wine Director for DineAmic Group in Chicago.
There are varying levels of taint, but when it is bad, it completely overwhelms the scents and flavors of fruit and earth that come from the wine, he explains. Unfortunately, you can't do anything about it other than pour it down the drain.
The Wine Tastes Really Bad, Too
Oxidation occurs when the wine has seen too much air, usually because of a faulty cork. “You can usually see this when inspecting a cork upon removal of the bottle. If the wine stain has bled all the way through the cork, chances are you have a very old wine or a bottle with cork issues,” says Sweders. “This can lead to the wine tasting like vinegar or cheese rinds,” he says. Gross—not what you want when pairing it with that delicious cheese board.
“Depending on where the wine is in its lifespan, it could be a good thing—but usually is not,” he says, so you’re better off saying goodbye and grabbing a new bottle of vino instead.
The Wine Smells Like Nail Polish Remover
“Caused by natural bacteria in the winemaking process, volatile acidity (VA) isn't necessarily a flaw but can be unpleasant to some,” says Sweders. The wine can set off aromas like nail polish remover or glue. “However, more times than not, if you decant the wine and let it sit for a bit the majority of these aromas will dissipate,” he says. This seems to be more common with Italian wines, he adds, so take note if you love a good Italian bottle but notice this problem.
The Wine Smells Like Rotten Eggs
Another issue that’s not overly common is sulfur dioxide, but it does exist and can make the wine smell pretty bad. “This usually occurs when too many sulfite preservatives are used when bottling. Sulfites are a good thing as they limit oxidization, however, if used too much they will leave you with a wine smelling of rotten eggs,” he says. Yuck.
The Wine Tastes Like Fruit—But Not in a Good Way
After bottling your wine, remove it from sunlight. Too much heat or sunlight can cause the wine to essentially "cook." “The wine will taste like baked or oversweet fruits instead of fresh,” he says. It might also taste caramelly, waxy, peanutty, or “stewed,” explains Torrence O’Haire, Wine Director at The Gage in Chicago.
Luckily, you can keep wine fresher longer. “The enemies that will speed the breakdown of your wine are warmth and oxygen, so you’ve only got to limit the two of those. Store your wine in the fridge (red too!) and it will not only remove the warmth problem, but the exchange of oxygen is slower in cold temps, so it will help there too,” says O’Haire.
“You can also decant your wine into a smaller bottle, reducing the amount of air trapped inside, further slowing the oxidation process,” he says. You can also get techy and try gadgets, like pumps, argon sprays, and more, all of which seek to protect against oxygen damage, and will probably add at least a day or two to the quality of the wine, O’Haire says.
What to Do With Spoiled Wine
You might need to toss it, especially if it tastes dreadful, but perhaps you can cook with it. It’s important to recognize the gradient of “spoilage.”
“I’ve had wines that, sure, weren’t day-one fresh, but were perfectly enjoyable for two full weeks. Wine isn’t like raw hamburger—it’s not just going to ‘go bad’ or make you sick...it will just get less and less delicious,” says O’Haire.
“When a wine is below-ideal, but not entirely unpleasant, it’s the perfect time to send it to the kitchen. There are all sorts of fabulous dishes you can make with a tired bottle of wine—coq au vin (chicken braised in wine, bacon, and mushrooms), spaghetti all’ubraico (drunk spaghetti, cooked in wine until deep purple), or my favorite, pears poached in wine,” he says.