Have you ever wondered if a wine has gone bad after tasting or smelling it? Ever heard someone say, “This wine is corked!” without really knowing what they were talking about? Have you ever worried you might get sick because you drank wine that tasted “off”?
Some people may define a “bad wine” as one they simply do not like. Disliking a wine due to a preference for a particular style, variety, or characteristic should not be confused with wines that have faults.
In this article we will focus on wine faults, typical causes, and what to do if you run across the rare bottle that is truly bad.
Why all this worry about wine flaws?
Bad wines (or wines with faults) are not as common as they once were. Still, there are many wine consumers who may be afraid to order wines at restaurants or purchase wines from a bottle shop with the concern that the wine may be bad.
Wines with faults were more common in decades and centuries past. Before reliable transport (refrigerated rail cars, refrigerated semi-trailers, air travel) wines risked the possibility of being “cooked,” frozen, or mishandled during transit either across the country or across the oceans (we discuss specific faults and causes of faults later in the blog!).
Technology in wineries has also improved the quality of wine. Minimal intervention wines still take steps to ensure that wines are stable, whether through natural or chemical means, so that they taste great and look delicious sitting on the shelf or in the display at a fine dining establishment.
Competition in the world of wine is also increasing, which drives poorer wines out of the market. Additionally, emerging wine regions get help from flying winemakers. If you have had a bad wine from a region or rural area in the United States even 10 or 20 years ago, consider going back and trying the wines from that area again to see if they have improved.
Some consumers consider a wine to be bad if it is one-dimensional (having only one flavor) or if they simply did not like it. There is some ownership required by consumers in discerning the types of wine they might like. That’s why a sommelier may confirm your order more than once, because he/she may know that the wine you’ve chosen is outside the ‘normal’ consumer pattern and does not want to open a bottle of wine that you may not like.
Last, if you do buy or get a bad wine, let the merchant know as soon as possible. When purchasing wines from retail shops or the winery, keep the receipt. If the wine is bad, most wineries or retail shops will gladly refund your money or give you a replacement bottle. They realize that an occasional bottle will go bad and have factored that into their bottom line.
Still, it’s important to remember that there’s a 97% - 99% chance that your wine is just fine! However, in your drinking life, you may come across a few bad wines. Here, we discuss a few common symptoms of bad wine and how you might detect that they are bad.
Does unopened wine go bad?
Yes, unopened and even properly stored wines can go bad.
There are some ways to tell if the unopened wine might be bad just by using your eyes! Here are some visual clues to tell if a wine might be bad before opening.
Take a look at the top of the bottle of wine. Is the top of the cork flush with the bottle opening? Or, is it raised up (coming out of the bottle) or sunken (going into the bottle)? Raised or sunken corks could indicate that the wine was exposed to high temperatures or pressure changes during shipment or storage.
Just like some beers in clear bottles (like Corona), wine in a clear bottle can suffer from light strike and become “skunky” if it is exposed to light for an extended period of time. So if you are shopping for wine and that bottle of Sauvignon Blanc is a little dusty (and its vintage is more than three years old), consider passing that bottle up for a newer vintage. Wines in clear bottles are designed to be enjoyed within 1-2 years of release. However, there are always exceptions in the world of wine, as some ageable wines like Sauternes do come in clear bottles.
Ullage is just a fancy term for the ‘headspace’ in a bottle of wine. If the wine is fairly young, there should be no ullage and the level of wine in the bottle should be the same as similar wines on the shelf.
If you find that the cork is dry and brittle when you are opening a bottle of wine, there is an increased likelihood that the bottle might be bad. However, you’re going have to engage the nose and taste buds to determine this. There’s a good chance that oxygen was able to get past the cork and into the wine if the cork shrank. We’ve worriedly opened some older bottles with brittle corks and found that the portion of the cork near the wine was just fine and the wine tasted wonderful.
What if my wine smells bad?
When you (or the sommelier) pour the wine into the glass, take 2-3 seconds to look at the wine for anything strange, like cloudiness, or color that looks a little off. If you aren’t sure, don’t be afraid to ask the server if the wine looks the way it’s supposed to. If you’re at home, there are great online tools for color of wine by style.
If you’ve visually inspected the wine bottle and have successfully freed the cork from the bottle at home (or have been presented with the wine at a restaurant), your next step is to engage the sense of smell.
In movies or on television, we often see people smelling a cork. Unfortunately, smelling the cork is not actually going to help you determine if the wine is bad or not. Instead, raise the glass to your nose and take a few discreet sniffs (short sniffs, like a when a dog meets another dog at the park and they check each other out) and see if there is anything strange or revolting. If you notice an unpleasant smell but have no idea if that smell is normal, just hand the glass back to the server and ask him/her to check it out. What you smell may simply be a characteristic unique to a wine you are unfamiliar with. Or, it could be a wine fault. Remember, there is a 97 to 99% chance that your wine is just fine!
Last is the taste test. I never trust the first taste because a lot of that first taste depends upon what you put in your mouth most recently. I always take a tiny amount and discreetly swish it around my mouth and quickly swallow. Then, I get to the second sip. Almost always the wine tastes just as it should.
But if the wine really does taste off, you have a couple of options. At the restaurant, ask the waiter or sommelier to pour themselves a sample to confirm the off-flavor and then ask for a replacement bottle. If you are at home, replace the screw-top or cork in the bottle, place it in the fridge, and locate your receipt. Then take the bottle back to the wine store in the next couple of days and ask the wine seller to take a sniff or taste test. Most of the time the merchant will replace the wine or offer a refund. If you purchased the wine from a winery, call or email the winery and ask about their wine replacement or refund policy.
What are some aromas or flavors I will encounter in a bad wine?
There are a number of descriptive words to describe wine faults (typically undesirable bad aromas). These common words are actually associated with molecules or groups of molecules. Here are a few of the most common wine fault descriptors and the associated molecules. Some of these tastes and aromas are universally agreed-upon faults, while others are more ambiguous.