Grapes of wrath: How to tell if your wine has gone bad

Lillian Stone
·4 min read
Older man looking concerned sniffing wine
Older man looking concerned sniffing wine


French writer Bernard Pivot smells a glass of wine

I don’t have the greatest wine palate. I exclusively buy the cheap stuff and, since I live alone, often take up to a week to finish a single bottle. Occasionally, I’ll find myself nose-deep in a wine glass, wondering if my three-day-old wine smells a little off or if I’m just psyching myself out. On particularly anxious days, I’ve convinced myself I’m going to die from drinking expired wine, even though I’ve never been certain as to whether or not wine can even expire. (It can, but some high-quality unopened wines can last years beyond their expiration date. Either way, it probably won’t kill you as wines don’t technically spoil.)

But what about the in-betweensies? What about that half-drunk screw-top bottle of cab that’s been sitting in your kitchen for three days? Is there a definitive way to determine if a bottle of wine has gone off? Actually, there are are a few ways. You just need to lean on your senses.

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Step 1: Take a look. Wine Enthusiast explains that the primary reason wines go bad is from oxidation, which is essentially too much exposure to oxygen. If the surface of your wine has been exposed to oxygen over the course of several days, you’ll be able to notice a change in the wine’s hue. Red wine may turn a ruddy brownish color, while white wines may darken to a deep yellow or golden color. That’s the first sign that something’s amiss with your Two-Buck Chuck.

Step 2: Take a whiff. When I say “take a whiff,” I mean a whiff of the wine itself—not the cork. Wine drinkers are always sniffing corks in movies, ostensibly looking for cork taint, which can make your wine smell a bit like wet dog. But while some sommeliers swear by cork-sniffing, it’s a maneuver best left to the experts trying to deduce imperfections in a new bottle. In other words, cork sniffing won’t help you when it’s time to determine if an already opened bottle has gone off. And if you’re a cheapo screw-off bottle drinker like me, there’s no cork to speak of. No, just raise the glass to your nose and take a few short sniffs. If you smell a sharp, vinegar-like smell, a cloying scent like a pile of wet raisins, or an abrasive odor like nail polish remover, your wine has probably turned. These aromas are from heat and oxygen exposure; that, in turn, causes bacteria to grow, which leads to excess production of acetic acid and acetaldehyde.

Step 3: Take a taste: If you smell any of the odors listed above, it’s likely time to throw your wine out. But if all smells fine, you can go ahead and take a taste. (An oxidized wine won’t kill you, so it’s fine to have a few sips.) After an opened bottle of wine goes off, it’ll develop an unmistakable sharp, sour flavor similar to vinegar. Some red wines also develop sweet, caramelized, or “sherried” flavors, which you’ll notice immediately. If you don’t notice any of these flavors, your wine’s probably just fine, although it may not be at peak freshness. But, if you’re anything like me, that’s not a deal-breaker. Murky bottoms up!

One more thing: it can be helpful to have a working knowledge of general wine lifespans. A primer on Martha Stewart’s website explains that sparkling wines like Champagne, Cava, and Prosecco have the shortest enjoyment window, since they turn flat soon after popping the cork. High-acid white wines like chablis or riesling will stay fresh and crisp for about five days in the refrigerator, while high-tannin reds like pinot noir or Tempranillo are typically a-okay up to five days after opening. Just make sure you’re using a quality stopper to keep oxygen away from the surface of your wine. You can also transfer wine to a smaller vessel, like a mason jar, to reduce the amount of air in the container. And when in doubt, just remember to use your face—eyes, nose, mouth—to assess your wine. You could probably throw some chin action in there, too, but I’m not gonna tell you what to do.