Wine is a work of art, so much so that even a low-cost bottle can feel fancy on principle. But how can you tell if a wine is bad?
However, be it a bottle of rich merlot or a crisp riesling, all wine has the potential to go bad prematurely. You may be able to tell while drinking, but there’s no reason to wait until you get to that point. Do you know how to tell if wine is bad? If not, this is a skill that’ll benefit your entire drinking experience.
Let’s walk you through an average wine night…
1. Pour A Glass First
You take out the bottle and inspect it as closely as you can, from checking the date to whether or not it’s a cork. Then you pour and proceed with the analysis. This can sound a little counterintuitive, but there’s really no way to tell if wine is bad in the bottle alone.
Wine bottles are often dark for a reason, designed to slow down oxidation through light (and air) exposure. VinePair’s brief look at oxidation breaks down the science behind the transformation and how a little air exposure is fine, but a lot can completely deconstruct the drink’s flavor. That’s not where this chemical breakdown ends, either. You also have to keep in mind the possibility of cork taint. This is a phenomenon in which the cork’s exposure to both wine and the small amount of air in the bottle causes degradation, sped up by additional factors such as poor quality materials and exposure to harmful chemicals in the manufacturing process.
This is a lot to consider before you’ve opened your purchase. Thankfully, the more you drink wine, the more intuitive all these little details become. Learning how to tell if wine is bad means taking the plunge and opening that bottle you’ve been looking forward to, even if the end result might be a disappointment.
2. Swirl And Sniff
You feel a cringeworthy moment of self-reflection as you start to spin the liquid in your glass. This may appear to be a cultural norm among wine aficionados attempting to look fancy, but it’s anything but. The ‘swirl and sniff’ technique is done to bring out wine’s flavor and make sure you’re getting your money’s worth.
Wine is a delicate creation that shifts through exposure to a multitude of factors. Swirling the wine encourages the liquid to reveal its true character as it’s exposed to the air, improving the sharpness of flavor with each new pass. Yao Family Wines has a five-step breakdown of the function of swirling wine: they stress the importance of wine as an aromatic drink, not just a flavorful one. The second you pour, swirl, and sniff you should notice anything wrong immediately. Does the wine smell far too bitter? How about a little rancid?
Wine Folly explores how each wine type will have its own bad scent, to boot, such as white wine’s vinegar-like spoilage or red wine’s nail polish remover kick. How to tell if wine is bad means engaging all five of your senses. Your first whiff should be a moment of delight, not a cause to crinkle your nose and push the glass away.
3. Study The Color
This leads us to the third part of the proverbial wine journey: analyzing the color so you don’t accidentally supplement your wine-infused steak with a nasty marinade. Wine Folly has an incredibly useful wine color chart for you to reference for your next Zoom get-together. Red wine generally has juicy, dazzling colors, with a brown tinge suggesting too much oxidation. Merlot is often a little darker, while pinot noir and zinfandel have berry hues. For those studying up on their wine vocabulary, acidity is a term used to denote both the compounds of the wine and its flavor; it also has the side-effect of helping wine age gracefully.
An odd-looking red wine may veer closer to orange. A badly aged white wine can take on a dull, yellow-orange hue. After you pour and swirl, hold your glass up to the light and study whether or not the tinge is something you’ll want to enjoy for the evening.
4. Taste As A Last Resort
At this point, you’re genuinely not sure whether your bottle is a winner or not. Being familiar with bad wine takes a little prior knowledge, after all, and just one of these above factors may still not be bad enough for you to part with your money.
It’s helpful to know that bad wine won’t actually harm you. Healthline has a solid breakdown of the properties of alcohol, from beer to wine, and how spoilage only risks a bad taste. Just as each wine type will have its own unique flavor notes and aroma, it’ll have a very peculiar nasty flavor. Pop Sugar has a short piece that emphasizes how some bad flavors can even seem good at first, such as red wine that is unusually sweet. White wine that’s gone bad will likely taste like rubbing alcohol or vinegar, whereas a faulty red will be overly bitter or sugary.
When in doubt? Brace yourself and give it a sip. If it’s anything less than delicious, pour it out.
5. But What About The Mouthfeel?
Wine types are broken down into red, white, rosé, blends, sparkling, and dessert. You’ll find much more variety as you explore each one in turn, giving you a literal lifetime’s worth of flavor note and mouthfeel combinations to enjoy. Winetasting Demystified has a useful post for beginners and aficionados alike, displaying several highly specific mouthfeel tasting wheels separated by type. Red wine often has smooth, silky, and velvety textures, though some are acidic enough to give you a tart pucker. White wine is celebrated for leaning dry or buttery, though it’s also not without its creamy variations.
Become accustomed to each wine type’s and grape variety’s general mouthfeel arrangement and you’ll quickly notice what to spot. Is your red wine less velvety and more…watery? You may just have a white wine that is chalky or grainy.
6. Write Down Notes For Proper Storage
Now that you’ve gone through the steps needed to figure out why your wine bottle isn’t up to snuff, it’s time to develop some good habits for wine storage. These will ensure your wine stays better far longer, with the added benefit of finer aging.
Don’t just smell your wine: smell your cork. Wine Mag dives deep into the history of cork taint and how even the best precautions can still expose you to the moldy scent and taste of a bad cork. Some manufacturers don’t double-check the quality of the compounds that go into their corks, leading to bottles of wine that aren’t ruined so much as…lessened. Once the wine is already open, refer to Wine Spectator’s top seven list on how to keep your bottle tasty. Temperature, light exposure, and even movement can contribute to the premature aging of your purchase.
So much love and care goes into crafting a bottle of wine. When you show it the same amount of care, you’ll receive a delicious glass in return.
7. Not All Wine Ages The Same
Do you know how long to store a bottle of red after it’s opened? How about white?
If you can’t remember how long to store your wine based on its type, check out Wine Folly’s simple breakdown. Sparkling wine fizzles out the quickest at one to three days, while light white wine and rose are more durable at five to seven days. A useful tip I learned recently is that wine’s composition breaks down further with extra movement, so don’t put your wine bottle in the inner shelf of your fridge. The constant sloshing and swaying will contribute to a duller glass a few days down the line.
Do more than know how to tell if wine is bad. Keep it from aging in the worst way by storing it properly, spotting the warning signs, and tossing it when it’s ready to go.
8. Supplement Your Home With Wine Storage Tools
You don’t need to break the bank to keep your wine tasting great. Just a few tools can help protect its flavor, mouthfeel, and aroma with little effort on your part.
The wine rack is as much decorative as it is functional, giving you somewhere to store your drinks separate from your milk and orange juice. Find somewhere cool and dark to put it so you can reduce oxidation and temperature differential as much as possible. A wine stopper is an indispensable part of the drinking experience (Amazon has plenty of great, airtight choices) and a wine glass rack can help reduce some of the clutter in your cupboards. If you’re afraid you’ll misplace your corkscrew on a particularly difficult night, get an extra one for peace of mind.
If you’re really thinking of diving deep into wine this year, go a step further. Consider purchasing a wine mouthfeel or wine storage poster to put on your wall for easy reference. Keep those wine bottles when you’re done, too, and save them for a future art project.
How to tell if wine is bad is an instinct you’ll develop in time.
Contrary to popular belief, bad wine isn’t exclusive to cheap bottles. Any wine type or age has the potential to become tainted by the cork, with improper storage able to degrade the very finest in the industry. Instead of fussing about superfluous details like price point, become familiar with the science and art behind the drink. That’s where its true potential lies.
If you know someone who’s getting into wine and wants to improve their sensory vocabulary, link them to this list. In the meantime: when’s the last time you had bad wine?