How to Tell If A Bottle of Wine Has Gone Bad
There are a number of factors that result in a bottle of wine going bad, but chief among them is exposure to drastic fluctuations in temperature, particularly spikes in high temperature. Wine that is exposed to excessive light can be damaged, as well as a lack of, or excessive, humidity. A lack of humidity can dry the cork out, while an abundance of humidity can lead to problems with mold.
On top of that, remember that some wines (most in fact) just aren’t supposed to be aged. If you come across a Cupcake Merlot from 1998, I would imagine that it’s way past it’s drinking window. Wine that isn’t made for the long haul shouldn’t be consumed years after its prime. Regardless of how perfectly it may have been stored, it is just not designed to live that long, and the benefits that age can have on a wine will not be recognized.
The number one way to gauge the freshness or viability of wine is obviously to taste it. If it tastes like wet cardboard or vinegar, it’s a goner. But there are a few clues you can look for without even opening the bottle to determine whether there’s a good chance the wine has spoiled.
Inspect the fill level. Look at a few bottles of wine and pay special attention to the amount of space in the neck of the bottle between the top of the wine and the bottom of the cork. If you look at three or four bottles, you’ll get a good read on what that space should look like. Now compare that to a bottle you think may have spoiled. If the gap is bigger, then oxygen may have seeped through the cork and reached the wine causing a loss of volume. Bad sign.
To confirm this, and another important step in inspecting a bottle, check out the cork. If you can, remove the entire foil from the neck of the bottle so that you can see the cork. Look for “cork bleed” or where the wine has started to run high up on the cork. It’s super important to look at the top of the cork for any discoloration or other signs that the wine has run through. If I’m unable to remove the foil (maybe haven’t purchased the wine yet), I often times will put my thumb on the top of the cork to see if the cork is being pushed out of the bottle, another sign that the wine may have been stored improperly. This is also a good tip for inspecting wine you order from a restaurant. Always inspect the cork as it’s your first clue to the wine’s integrity before you taste it.
One more important thing to do before you taste the wine is to smell it and look at its color. Wine can take a while to open up to the nose and aged red wines will begin to turn crimson in color, particularly around the edges, so you want to give the wines a chance to breath, particularly if they’re older. The more you taste wine of different age, the more you’ll know what to expect. But if it’s a younger wine and it looks thin, brown in color and smells like wet cardboard, you definitely have a dud.
Many reputable wine retailers will take back a bad bottle so don’t immediately toss a spoiled wine in the trash, or set it aside for cooking. I would stick the cork back in right away without pouring too much more out and try to return it for a new bottle. This has worked out many times for me, especially if you have a receipt, so I’ve created an envelope with wine receipts just for this purpose.
I would also note that just because one bottle is bad, it doesn’t automatically mean that the bottle next to it is bad too. I would be suspicious sure, assuming they were stored in similar condition, but each bottle, especially at restaurants, should be properly vetted individually. One of the biggest mistakes I see people make at restaurants is not tasting a second bottle (when they order the same as the first one). Just because the first one was good, has little bearing on the integrity of what comes after it, even if they are the same vintage, producer, etc. They may have arrived at different times, in different shipments, and may have been stored in entirely different conditions.
Please share any experiences with spoiled wine or other tips that you have in the comments below.