3 Ways to Tell if Your Good Wine Has Gone Bad

3 Ways to Tell if Your Good Wine Has Gone Bad

by JJ Buckley Fine Wines


Empty wine glass with wine being poured next to it

Have you ever held an old bottle of wine and wondered if it's still okay to drink? If you have, you’re certainly not alone. Determining if a great wine has gone bad and when to throw it out can be a bit tricky.

While many wines certainly improve with age, this rule does not apply to all bottles. In fact, both opened and unopened wines can go bad over time. The good news is that unopened wine is often good long past the recommended drinking window — if the smell and taste are still pleasant. For the sake of your health and your wine investments, it's important to know how long different wines typically last, how to tell if wine has gone bad, and the different factors that can cause wine to spoil.

How Long Does Wine Typically Last?

When stored properly and kept unopened, white wines can often outlive their recommended drinking window by 1-2 years, red wines by 2-3 years, and cooking wines by 3-5 years. Fine wine — as you may have guessed — can typically be consumed for decades. Wine storage best practices dictate that you keep your wine in a cool, dark space. Bottles should be placed on their sides in order to prevent overdrying the cork. 

Opened wine, however, is another matter. When you open a bottle of wine, its contents are exposed to heat, light, bacteria, and oxygen. These elements cause a variety of chemical reactions that quickly work to affect your wine. Although storing wine in a cooler temperature can help mitigate these reactions, opened wines will inevitably go bad. In general, white wines go downhill quicker than reds. As a rule of thumb, once opened:

  • Ports will last between 1-3 weeks
  • Dessert wines are good for 3-7 days
  • Red and rich white wines last roughly 3-6 days
  • Lighter white wines last 4 or 5 days
  • Sparkling wines go quickly, with only 1-2 days to enjoy

To make the most of your opened wine, seal it tightly and store it in the refrigerator. Or better yet, keep a smaller glass vessel (such as an empty 375ml half bottle) on hand to pour the remainder into where there will be less oxygen in contact with the liquid. Just make sure it's completely clean or sanitized so there is not any cross-contamination.

How Can You Tell if Wine Has Gone Bad?

Many wine aficionados can tell immediately if a wine is no longer good. They are attuned to qualities of the wine that give way its overripe state to the drinker. Three ways to tell if your wine has gone bad include:

1. Appearance

Once a wine has passed its prime state, there are several visual cues that will give it away. These include:

Cloudiness

This rule applies to wines that were originally clear. When a wine grows cloudy or creates a film within the bottle, it's probably time to get rid of it. The cloudiness points to bacterial activity beginning within the bottle. 

Change in Color

 Similar to fruit, wines often brown over time when exposed to oxygen. Color changes happen naturally as an unopened wine ages, and do not always indicate that your wine has gone bad. But it is certainly worth noting that chemical changes have begun in your wine. So, if the bottle was not really meant to age and you note a change in color, it's probably no longer any good.

Development of Bubbles

The appearance of bubbles in your wine indicates the beginning of a second fermentation. Unlike in champagne, these bubbles mean that your wine has likely soured and needs to be thrown out.

2. Smell

Smell is often one of the most noticeable ways your wine will let you know that it's time to move on. These scents are often unpleasant and medicinal — like chemicals or vinegar — but they can also be sweet, depending on the way your wine reacts to external elements. Common changes in smell include:

Acetic Acid Scents

When bacteria in your wine starts to form acetic acid, you might notice smells that are:

  • Similar to sauerkraut
  • Reminiscent of vinegar
  • Sharp or tangy 

Oxidation Smells

When oxidation occurs, wine becomes stale and yields scents that are:

  • Unusually nutty
  • Similar to apples or sweet applesauce
  • Smoky and sweet like burnt marshmallows or caramel

Reduction Odors

Due to wine faults, some wines go bad before they are ever opened. When this occurs, you might notice odors like:

  • Cabbage
  • Garlic 
  • Burnt rubber or garbage

3. Taste

If you miss the cues of changed appearance and scents, you may notice strong or unusual flavors in wine that has gone bad. These flavors often include:

  • Sharp or sour vinegar flavors
  • Horseradish-like taste
  • Sherried or caramelized flavors

What About Wine Faults?

Wines often go bad as a result of old age or being open for too long. However, unopened wines can also go bad if they have a wine fault. A fault is a defect that occurs from natural issues, incorrect winemaking practices, or errors in the storage process. You can often detect wine faults from unusual flavors or aromas, just as you would in a wine that has already been opened. 

Is Bad Wine Dangerous?

While wine that has gone bad won’t necessarily hurt you, it is best to throw it away and start fresh with a new bottle. A great way to train your senses to detect bad wine is to take a minute to observe the qualities of a bottle you are sure has gone bad. Look at the color and clarity, give it a smell, and — if you feel comfortable — taste a drop. This will help you quickly identify overmature wine if you encounter it in the future. 

Keeping Your Wine Collection Fresh 

It can be disappointing to throw out a bottle of wine that has gone bad or has passed its peak. Fortunately, the silver lining lies in choosing new wines to restock your collection! If you’re looking to refresh your wine cellar, JJ Buckley can help you locate specific favorites or discover new varietals. No matter what wine you love to keep in your home, our knowledgeable consultants can help pair you with the perfect wines to fill your cellar.