The first spoiled wine I ever tasted was given to me on my 21st birthday. My aunt had bought me a beautiful Charbono and Cabernet Sauvignon blend from her favorite California estate, and had kept it in storage for four years until I was old enough to drink it. The second I opened the bottle, I knew something wasn’t right. A moldy newspaper smell creeped out of the glass and the wine tasted like nail polish remover; it had all of the signs of a wine that has gone bad in storage. Now that I’m older and have had years of experience with wine, I can usually spot these signs before I uncork the bottle. Having this essential skill will prevent you from being disappointed by a sour wine and will allow you to catch serious storage problems before they impact your entire collection.
What to Look for Before You Open the Bottle
Most of the casual collectors I know can easily spot a spoiled wine after smelling or tasting it, but few of them know how to check for signs that wine has gone bad in storage before they pull out the cork. Whenever I drink a bottle of wine that’s been in storage for more than a couple of years, I check the position of the cork before I do anything else. If it’s bulging from the top of the bottle slightly, it’s a sign that the wine might have suffered from heat damage, meaning its flavors won’t be as fruity and delicate as they should be.
However, a raised cork is also a sign that the winery might have sealed the bottle improperly. While this is most commonly a problem for wineries that use cheap or synthetic corks, occasionally even the most expensive wines in the world can have this issue. A bad seal will either look like the cork has too much space around it, or it will be so tight that you have difficulty pulling it out of the bottle. In the first case, the wine will be prematurely oxidized; too much oxygen will leak into the bottle too quickly, making the wine age and spoil within a very short time. In the second case, the opposite happens. The wine doesn’t get enough oxygen with the firm seal, preventing it from slowly aging and developing new flavors. Although these are telltale signs of a wine gone bad, you should still open the bottle to confirm your suspicions.
Trust Your Sense of Sight and Smell
If the cork looks normal so far, remove it and check its base; it should be only slightly stained from the wine. Corks that appear to have soaked up some of the wine or that crumble to the touch are signs that a wine has gone bad in storage. Soggy corks are those that were not well sealed to the bottle, allowing liquid to seep up around the edges. Likewise, crumbling corks are not dense enough to protect the wine from oxidation, increasing the likelihood of a spoiled wine. In addition to the cork, look at the wine’s ullage (the space between the cork and the wine). In a young wine, the liquid will appear to almost touch the cork, and generally, the higher the ullage, the better condition the wine will be in when you open it. Wines that are more than 15 years old can start at the top of the bottle’s shoulder, but if the liquid dips below the upper shoulder, it’s a sign of oxidation.
As for smell, your wine’s bouquet will vary depending on varietal. The first time I tried Cotes du Rhone, I was hit with a strong, unpleasant smell that I thought was a serious wine flaw. It turned out that the wine merely had a great deal of Brett yeast in it, and it was perfectly healthy. The only smells that should worry you are those resembling mold, wet newspaper, wet dog, or vinegar, since these are signs of a corked wine or a wine that has reached its natural expiration date. In addition, any strong raisin or cooked fruit smells are a bad sign in a young wine.
Tasting Note Red Flags
This is where things get a little easier. First pour yourself a glass and observe the color. If the wine looks tawny or brown (in both red and white wines), it’s a sign of either oxidation, or a wine that has expired. However, older wines can be slightly darker in shade than their younger peers. Next, take your first sip of the wine. Any wine that tastes bland or that has a strong vinegar or chemical taste has gone bad in storage. You can spot this easily because you’ll have no desire to take more than one sip of wine. Other tasting note red flags are less obvious and unpleasant, but equally problematic. For instance, a dry red wine should never taste sweet, and if it does, it’s likely suffered from heat exposure. Still wines should never have carbonation, and if they do, it’s a sign that the wine has gone through secondary fermentation.
Before you label your wine as spoiled, remember that older wines can appear to have some of the qualities of a spoiled wine, even when they have been stored perfectly. Old wines naturally lose some of their bold fruit flavors over time, taking on savory notes like leather or spice. Fruit flavors may also fade and begin to taste less like fresh fruit than like dried versions of those fruits. If you taste these flavors, it’s a sign that your wine has actually aged beautifully. But if your wine hasn’t aged beautifully, leaning to spot the signs will help you rescue other bottles in the case and save yourself from a mouthful of disappointment.
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