If we’re being honest, there’s a solid chance most of us have powered through a glass—or three—of less than perfect wine before admitting to some flaws (personal, or the wine’s). But when a bottle of wine has really gone bad, even the thirstiest among us can’t rationalize another sip.
But how can you tell if a wine’s gone bad? Beyond popping the cork and accidentally releasing ghosts or live bats, there have to be some more obvious visual or sensory clues, right? Fortunately, yes, there absolutely are. They’re not too hard to identify, and they’re (generally) conveniently packaged in a few sensory categories.
Looking at wine is a central part of enjoyment. You know, that thing you do at a wine tasting when you stare intensely at your wine as if you just realized it was blackmailing you? Except you’re appreciating the color, and to some extent getting a preview of maybe some lush blackberry or bright citric flavors to come. Get used to looking at wine, and you’ll be better at detecting if it’s gone bad. Key indicators include a change in color—purple to ruddy brownish, lighter white to golden, e.g.—and/or opaqueness. Some unfiltered wines may be less transparent to begin with, but a change in opaqueness usually indicates something went weird. (*Aged wines may have a darker hue to them, and that’s fine. But a younger wine, white or red, with a similar color are likely flawed.)
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Beyond cork taint—which will make your wine smell like a wet dog just shook his hair out in your musty basement—many “Wines Gone Bad” (a forthcoming show on TruCrime TV) go bad because of an interior chemical conversion (often goosed by oxygen or heat). There’s a bacteria in wine that converts alcohol into acetic acid, basically vinegar, transmogrifying a charming waltz with alcohol into a bar fight with acidity. That’s not the only thing that happens when a wine gets unpleasantly funky, but it’s a major player in the tragedy of lost wines. An easy suggestions is to look out for tart, sharp, or even nail polish remover-like aromas that weren’t there yesterday. You might also get a cabbage or barnyard smell, resulting from sulfur compounds or brettanomyces (often a good thing) respectively. At the end of the day, if the nose is unpleasant, the wine isn’t worth drinking, and is most likely flawed.
If you’ve smelled the wine and still feel confident to try out the taste, the flaws may be subtle enough that you’ve already chugged plenty down (don’t worry, wine gone bad generally can’t hurt you; it just, well, it sucks). But tasting wine can also be a good secondary way to ensure you’re not about to chuck a decent bottle. Again, you’ll probably find sour or sharper flavors that seem out of balance with the rest of the wine, or oxidized flavors—nuttiness, flabbiness—with much duller fruit.
So what do you do if and when you encounter any of the above? If you’re hosting a dinner party, throw down a smoke bomb and head to the nearest evacuation sector (you’ve practiced this drill a thousand times, you know it by heart). Failing that, or if your guests are too fast, simply shrug, say something cute about “they can’t all be winners,” and discard the wine. Given the many layers of production and conditioning that go into preparing what’s in your bottle—and quite possibly the many dollars you’ve spent on it—there’s no reason to settle for lower quality.
Sure, you lose some money, but you also learn the freaky/cool/lifetime-long lesson of the “aliveness” of wine, the peculiarity and environmental responsiveness that makes it one of the most interesting beverages in the world.
*Super-savers, if you really don’t want to throw bad wine out, there are a few possible alternatives.