How To Tell If Your Wine Has Gone Bad

by Emily Kelley
Close up shot of two unrecognizable women cheering to friendship and good health with glasses of red...
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Count yourself lucky if you still have a few bottles of wine left over from the holidays. Whether you got them as gifts or they were leftovers from your get-togethers, you might be wondering how you’re going to drink them all — and more importantly, does wine go bad?

I grew up in California wine country, so my friends and family know that getting me a bottle of cabernet is always a safe bet. But then, like, I might end up with six bottles of wine to take home over the holidays. Now, I’m a lady who can put away a bottle of wine (with a little help from my boyfriend) in a night or two, but sometimes I just kind of want to have beer instead. There are any number of reasons why you might stash away the vino — you want to save the nice bottle your mom got you for a special occasion, or you don’t usually drink chardonnay, so you want to save it for when your BFF visits in the spring.

Whatever your reason, if you’re wondering how long you can hang on to the bottles you don’t want to drink immediately, you’re in luck. While wine does, in fact, go bad, there are ways to determine if the bottles you have will, and when.

Can wine go bad?

The short answer is yes. But there are a lot of factors that lead to whether or not your wine will go bad, and when that will happen. For the most part though, it’s easy to determine if you can keep a bottle for a while, or you should chug it down immediately. What are the signs? Keep reading, my friend. Keep reading.

Wait, I thought you could keep wine for years?

I’m sure most of us are incredibly envious of people who have legit “wine cellars.” You know, basements or cellars filled with fancy bottles of wine just waiting to mature. It’s true that a high quality bottle of wine — if stored properly — can sit for years, and actually taste better than if you’d opened it immediately.

For less quality bottles, you can probably get away with keeping them unopened for a year or two without them going bad. As for my favorite $3 and $4 bottles from Trader Joe's? Those should be consumed pretty quickly.

How do I know exactly which wines will last?

There’s a misconception that all red wines get better with age — not true, actually. It largely depends on the amount of tannins the wine has. Wines with lower tannin levels, like tempranillo, pinot noir, chianti, and barbera, don’t really get better with age, and can be consumed a year after their grapes were harvested. Wines with a higher tannin level — malbec, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and syrah — can be kept for longer, and are more likely to improve with age. Again, it also depends on the overall quality of the specific bottle.

As for white wines like chardonnay, pinot gris, and sauvignon blanc, they are meant to be consumed within a few years of their harvest dates, and typically don’t get any better with age.

What about after the wines have been opened?

I’m sure there’s a saying out there along the lines of, “Don’t open a bottle of wine unless you intend to drink it.” Once a bottle has been opened, you’ll only have a few days to finish it depending on the wine, and how you store it.

White wines, for instance, can last between three to seven days if re-corked and kept in the fridge. Red wines last between three to fives days if you re-cork them and keep them in a cool dark place. Boxed wines (hey, I don’t judge) can last up to 28 days when kept in the fridge, so you may want to stock up on one if you’re facing a snow storm.

Usually, if you’re opening a bottle of wine for dinner or a party, this won’t be an issue. But if you live alone and only have a glass or two a week, you may have to deal with a few wasted bottles.

How can I tell if a bottle isn’t good anymore?

There are a few easy ways to tell if wine has gone bad. It can be hard to tell if the wine is still good if you never opened it, but you’ll be able to tell almost immediately after you pour. Some of the most distinctive signs is if the wine seems discolored — if your white wine looks a little brown, or if your red wine looks like it’s lost its red luster — or if the wine has a weird or gross smell. People have described the smell of bad wine as wet dog, wet cardboard, and nail polish remover, among other things.

And if all else fails, give it a small taste. You should be able to tell the difference between wine that’s good to drink, and wine that’s gone bad.

What’s the proper way to store wine?

As I mentioned, red wine needs to be kept in a cool, dark place if you plan on hanging on to it for a while. Most of us probably don’t have a wine cellar readily available in our tiny apartments, so a wine rack that’s away from any windows or a cabinet will work just fine. White wines can also be stored like this, though they tend to prefer a bit of a lower temperature. Bottles with real cork — as in corks made from actual cork and not that spongy stuff some bottles have these days — should always be stored on their sides.

As for opened bottles, white wine needs to stay in the fridge, and reds should be kept in the same cool, dark place except upright. For all you real sophisticated wine drinkers, you can also invest in a wine fridge or wine preserver.

For more inspiration, check out Bustle on YouTube.

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