Does Wine Ever Go Bad

If you're considering buying a wine fridge then you care about the lifespan of any given wine. The question 'does wine ever go bad' has a long and complicated answer with reasons why it can actually improve, but then inevitably decline, but the very short answer is yes, after enough time elapses, and if not stored properly in a freestanding wine fridge or cellar, it will go bad.

Understanding the Wine Aging Process

Wine, unlike many other beverages, has the potential to evolve and improve with age. The aging process involves a delicate interplay of chemical reactions that transform the wine's flavour, aromas and structure. Red wines, with their tannins, and certain white wines, such as oaked Chardonnays or wines with a lot of sugar and acidity, are often considered candidates for aging, as these components can soften and integrate over time causing the wine to improve.

However, not all wines are meant to age gracefully. Most whites, light reds, and fruity wines are best enjoyed in their youth when their vibrant flavours are at their peak. The key to determining a wine's aging potential lies in its composition, including the type of grape, winemaking techniques, and storage conditions. Another good indicator is price. If you bought a wine at the supermarket for a tenner, it's not going to keep past a couple of years. This is because there was low cost in production, low use of new oak that would impart tannin, little extraction etc. 

Factors Influencing Wine Spoilage

While wine has the potential to age and improve, it can also spoil under unfavourable conditions. Several factors contribute to the deterioration of wine, turning it from a heavenly elixir to a disappointing expense:

  1. Temperature: Exposure to extreme temperatures, whether too hot or too cold, can accelerate the aging process and lead to undesirable changes in the wine's composition. Fluctuating temperatures can also cause the wine to age rapidly.

  2. Light: Ultraviolet (UV) light can degrade the compounds in wine, resulting in off-flavours and aromas. This is why wine is typically stored in dark bottles and cellars.

  3. Oxygen: While a small amount of oxygen is essential for the aging process, excessive exposure can lead to oxidation, causing the wine to taste flat or develop vinegar-like characteristics. This happens because the cork has been compromised either.

  4. Vibration: Excessive or repetitive vibration of the molecules inside the wine will also cause the wine to prematurely age.

All four of these influences can be countered by maturing your wine in a wine storage cabinet.

Recognising Signs of Spoilage

Identifying whether a bottle of wine has gone bad requires a keen sense of observation. Here are some common indicators that your wine may have crossed the threshold from delightful to disappointing:

  1. Unpleasant Odours: If the wine smells like vinegar, wet cardboard, or has a musty odour, it may be spoiled.

  2. Off-putting Colours: White wines may turn brown or dark yellow, while red wines can take on a brownish hue, signalling oxidation.

  3. Carbonation: Still wines should not have any noticeable fizziness. If you hear a hissing sound upon opening the bottle, it may have undergone fermentation in the bottle, resulting in off-flavours.

  4. Flat Taste: If the wine lacks the vibrant flavours and balanced acidity it once had, it may have oxidized or suffered from poor storage conditions.

Why does wine go bad

Can all wine improve with age?

The aging potential of a wine is influenced by a myriad of factors, each contributing to the intricate dance of chemical reactions that transpire within the bottle. While some wines benefit from the transformative effects of time, others may lose their vibrancy and appeal. Here are key factors to consider:

  1. Tannin Content: Wines rich in tannins, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Nebbiolo, often have the capacity to age gracefully. Tannins, derived from grape skins, seeds, and stems, provide structure and can soften over time, contributing to a smoother and more harmonious palate.

  2. Acidity Levels: Wines with higher acidity, commonly found in many white varieties, can evolve and mellow with age. However, excessively high acidity or a lack of balance may hinder a wine's ability to age gracefully.

  3. Winemaking Techniques: The choices made by winemakers, including the use of oak barrels, the duration of barrel aging, and the fermentation process, greatly impact a wine's aging potential. Well-crafted wines with balanced components are more likely to benefit from aging.

  4. Varietal Characteristics: Certain grape varieties are inherently predisposed to aging, while others are best enjoyed in their youth. For instance, light and fruity wines like Beaujolais Nouveau and Vinho Verde are generally not suitable for long-term aging.

Wines That Flourish with Age:

While not an exhaustive list, certain categories of wines are renowned for their ability to evolve positively with aging. These include:

  1. Red Bordeaux: Bordeaux wines, particularly those from prestigious regions like Pauillac and Margaux, are often revered for their capacity to age gracefully. Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blends with ample tannins and structure can improve over several decades.

  2. Barolo and Barbaresco: Nebbiolo, the grape behind these iconic Italian wines, is known for its high acidity and tannins. Barolos and Barbarescos can develop remarkable complexity and elegance with extended aging.

  3. Vintage Ports: Fortified wines like Vintage Ports, crafted from a blend of grape varieties, can endure the test of time, evolving into luscious and complex elixirs.

  4. White Burgundy: Some premium white Burgundies, particularly those made from Chardonnay, can showcase beautiful tertiary characteristics with aging. These wines often undergo a metamorphosis, revealing notes of hazelnuts, butter, and honey.

The Case Against Aging Every Wine:

Despite the romanticised notion that all wines improve with age, the reality is far more nuanced. Several factors can contribute to a wine's decline over time:

  1. Low Tannins and Acidity: Wines lacking sufficient tannins or acidity may not have the structure needed to withstand the aging process. Without these components, the wine may become flat and uninteresting.

  2. Fruit-Forward Styles: Wines prized for their fresh and fruity characteristics, such as Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, and many rosés, are generally best enjoyed in their youth. Aging these wines can lead to a loss of vibrancy and a diminishing of their primary flavours.

  3. Inconsistent Storage: Improper storage conditions, including exposure to high temperatures, fluctuating humidity, or excessive light, can accelerate the aging process and result in premature spoilage.

Is There a Point of No Return?

While some wine faults can be attributed to poor storage or winemaking practices, it's important to note that not all spoiled wine is beyond redemption. Certain faults, such as cork taint, are irreversible, but others, like slight oxidation, may be improved with aeration or decanting. Ultimately, the drinkability of a wine depends on the extent of the spoilage and personal taste preferences.

In conclusion, all wine, no matter how well crafted, from what grape and even if stored in the perfect condition, will at some point decline. Some wines last longer than us humans with many examples of famous classified growth Bordeaux's from the 19th century still drinking beautifully and Port and Madeira that was around during Napoleon's time still offering immense pleasure. However, even these will, at some point, decline. 

Cheap wines, those whose production saw less care in the vineyard and winery (anything under £10 and maybe even £20) should be drunk within a few years to enjoy their freshness and fruit forward characteristics.

Sarah newton

Author - Sarah Newton

Sarah Newton has worked in the wine industry for two decades holding senior positions at some of the UK wine industry's leading brands. The MD of Coolersomm, Sarah is WSET certified and our lead wine buyer too.