How to know if your wine’s gone bad

At Spanish Wine Experience we are in agreement about something. In this current climate of political turmoil, civil unrest, war, elected leaders who are clinically insane, natural disasters and economic downtowns there is one tragic truth that we are still struggling with; something that really pushes us to tears. When we open a bottle of wine and it has gone bad. It is a tragedy of Greek proportions.

Last year I was luxuriating in the wines on offer in VinoPremier; a wine shop-cum-bar where, as well as ordering from the menu, one can also purchase any bottle from their shop – from 3 euros to 300 euros – add on a six euro opening fee and enjoy it there and then. I spied a fairly cheap bottle from the fairly unknown region of Ribera del Júcar and thought it would be a fun little voyage into the unknown to share with a couple of colleagues.

Waiter. Bottle opener. Cut. Swivel. Turn. Pop. Glug.

We all stuck our noses in. I quite liked the nose. The others weren’t so sure.

‘It’s kind of pruney and liquorice-y. Almost sherry-like. Flavour’s a bit flat though.’

Then, slowly, judging from the expressions around the table, I realised I was in the minority here. And then I realised one thing: a young red Tempranillo wine with no oak ageing shouldn’t be this way. Then we noticed the colour of the wine drops that had fallen onto the paper napkins. They were rusty orange. I headed downstairs and, being superbly English, apologised profusely for the fact that I thought the wine was bad. The owner took one look and one sniff, said sorry and gave us a different bottle. Somewhat pleased with myself I thought ‘At least my wine qualification had some real world uses!’

But you don’t need a qualification to know what to look out for. Here’s some tips on how to know if your wine has gone bad.

What can ruin your wine?

  1. Cork taint – affected by the presence of TCA (trichloroanisole) in the cork.
  2. Oxidation – affected by unwanted contact with oxygen (maybe due to incorrect storage).
  3. Accidental secondary fermentation – unwanted bubbles due to accidental re-fermentation from too much residual sugar.
  4. Heat damage – essentially your wine is being cooked!
  5. UV light damage – over-exposed like a photo if stored by a window or in direct sun.

Cork taint and Oxidation are the most common – and to be honest they aren’t that common. Secondary fermentation is very rare these days. And, as long as the wine is stored gently and correctly, heat and UV damage shouldn’t ever bother you.

Appearance

So, before you stick your nose in just have a look at your wine. Swirl it. Tilt it. Put it against a white background or light if possible.

  • The bottle arrives and the cork itself is a little pushed out from the bottle. This is a common factor of overheated or ‘maderized’ wine. The liquid has expanded and pushed the cork out.
  • If the colour of your wine – from young and unoaked to typical styles of general aged wines (a couple of years like Rioja or Bordeaux) – is lifeless and dull and has turned browny orange, almost muddy, your wine is likely oxidised. Remember however, that long ageing adds a touch of orange to the edges of red wines. But in more everyday and younger wines this shouldn’t happen.

Aroma

Now is time to stick your nose into your glass. A lot of faults can de detected by your olfactory system. We may not be a sensitive as dogs to aromas, but there are some things that, when they jump out at you, give you a clue as to the state of your wine.

  • Like what happened with my wine: if it smells like a sherry, and isn’t a sherry, your wine has probably turned.
  • If you have a glass of ‘everyday’ wine that smells mouldy, musty or dank like a wet cellar then the likelihood is that the wine is corked.
  • Other unwanted smells to keep a nose out for are vinegar, rotten eggs, nail polish remover, sweaty gym clothes. This could mean a sulphur problem.
  • If you’ve left your wine somewhere too hot for too long you might get whiffs of old cooked raisins or overly stewed fruits. This is trickier to notice. But likely means your wine has warped.

Taste

So the time has come for you to taste it. If you’ve already worked out by now that your wine is bad, we imagine you probably won’t want to taste it. But, if you haven’t worked it out yet, or you went straight for the glug, there are a few signposts that your glass of vino is off.

  • Sweetness: you are drinking a glass of lovely aged Tempranillo from Rioja and you notice that your wine is actually sweet, you double check the label, no, it’s not a Port, it’s definitely Rioja. You’re wine has overheated and cooked a little. Pour it away.
  • Bubbles: Many sparkling wines are created with a secondary fermentation process. Still wines are not. Unless it’s a naturally slightly effervescent wine like Vinho Verde for example, there should not be bubbles in your wine. This is an unwanted property so, if you’re unsure, perhaps check with the sommelier if it is supposed to be like that. If not. Send it back with a face of contempt.
  • Vinegary: Linked with the aromas, if you’re wine tastes heavily vinegary or astringent it’s possible the wine has turned. Check with the sommelier if you’re unsure.
  • Lifeless: Perhaps the hardest one to pick as you have to somewhat know what you’re drinking. But if a wine is dull and flat and flabby, there is the possibility it may have gone a little off.

Wine is a tricky beast and, if uninitiated or untested, some wine drinkers might be put off by wines, thinking them botched, when in fact they are fine. Aged Burgundy wines can often be a little gamey, or Pinotage from South Africa can sometimes brink on the ludicrously thick and spicy. This is a style, not a problem. As stated above, if you’re not happy with the wine, or fearful it might have gone bad, just ask! They won’t mind. Any decent eatery will want their clients happy and drunk on good wine.

So, armed with this information, go out, order far more wine than is responsible, get your noses and mouths your glasses and make sure you’re drinking the real deal!

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