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Does wine go bad? It’s not quite as simple as you may think

How long can you keep that bottle of wine for?

Red wine swirling in glass
Mauro Lima / Unsplash

Wine tends to not stick around very long in my house. Generally, if I’ve purchased a bottle, that bottle is gone within a day or two. And no, as much as I may fantasize about one day owning my own medieval wine cellar, that dream has yet to come to fruition. Having said that, I understand that there are those with more self-control than I who may be wondering how long they can hold on to their wine, be it opened or unopened.

If you’ve ever picked up an old bottle of wine and wondered if it’s still good, we’ve got you covered. Figuring out which wines age well, which wines don’t, and how long you can keep an open bottle of wine are all questions with complicated answers.

How long is wine good for unopened?

Wine bottles
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As you are probably already well aware, fine wines can age for decades and be nothing short of magical once opened. These are the bottles hidden within the romantically dusty and dimly-lit wine cellars of the movies. The not-so-romantic truth of the matter is, though, that these days, the vast majority of wine is not meant to be aged. In fact, according to Vin-X, 90% of global supply is meant to be drunk within one year and 99% within five years. Less than 1% is fine wine, which can age and improve beyond five years, and the best of these are investment-grade, “movie wine cellar” wines.

Most wines on the market today are meant to be consumed young so that they maintain their vibrant, fresh, fruit-forward notes. The argument that aging always improves wine’s flavor cannot be stated simply. The ability of wine to age well depends on both the wine and the preferences of the person drinking it. Wine that has been aged develops richer, more complex flavors, to be sure. But is that the flavor profile every one is necessarily after? We’d argue not.

In terms of what is “best” for a drinking timeframe, most winemakers have a suggested “drinking window” wherein their wine is best enjoyed, depending on factors like the wine’s vintage and varietal. Most wines on the market today will have a drinking window ranging from the release date to a certain amount of years past it.

While there are certainly no hard and fast rules about aging and drinking wine, generally speaking, there are a few basic guidelines for when to enjoy your bottle. These guidelines will vary from winemaker to winemaker, but for the most part, they will look something like this:

Red wine

Release date + 2-3 years

White wine and rosé

Release date + 1-2 years

Sparkling wine

Release date + 2-3 years

Fine wine (less than 1% of wine)

All rules go out the window as these wines can be enjoyed for decades

How long can you keep a bottle of wine?

Bottle and glass of red wine on bench
Cup of Couple/Pexels / Pexels

Unlike those beautiful unopened bottles that can age for decades without concern, an open bottle of wine has only days—if that— left to survive. We like to think of an opened wine bottle as a flower that has been cut. While that flower could possibly survive for several weeks on the plant, once cut, it has only days to be enjoyed. Opening a bottle of wine is like cutting that flower and should be appreciated in the precious, limited time you have with it.

When wine is exposed to oxygen, the clock starts ticking, and it has already begun to deteriorate. This is because, even with proper storage, there’s no escape from even small amounts of heat, light, oxygen, and bacterial growth. The chemical reactions these elements cause start working the moment that cork is popped.

Tannins, a component found in red wines, can help wine to survive a bit longer, so reds will typically have a slightly longer shelf life once opened than whites.

Red wine

Depending on how tannic your red wine is, it can last between three and six days if you’re careful to re-cork and store it in the refrigerator—yes, the refrigerator. Even though red wine is not often served chilled, it is important to store opened red wine in the fridge to impede bacterial growth.

White wine and rosé

Due to their lack of sugar, drier wines tend to last a bit longer, so dry rosés and whites like Fiano, Roussanne, and Verdelho will last for up to three days in the refrigerator. White wines on the sweeter side will start to fall flat after about two days.

Sparkling wine

Anything with that magical fizz is going to lose its charm after even just a couple of hours. It is possible to retain some of those bubbles for up to two or even three days by sealing the bottle as tightly as possible, but it’ll never be the same. You should probably just drink all of the Champagne you possibly can in one sitting. Sorry?

How can you tell if wine has gone bad?

White wine in glass swirling
Big Dodzy / Unsplash

Detecting whether or not wine has gone bad can be glaringly obvious, just slightly off, or anywhere in between depending on exactly just how deteriorated the wine has become. There are three main factors to determine whether or not wine has gone bad: appearance, scent, and flavor.

Pour a bit of the wine into a glass and take a look. Wine that has passed its prime will have a few visual clues, including possible cloudiness, changes in color, and the possible development of bubbles (in an otherwise non-sparkling wine). Generally speaking, wine shouldn’t have any cloudiness in its appearance or texture. Evidence of this or even a film on the bottle’s glass indicated bacterial growth has taken place. The same is true when a wine’s color changes or seems a bit off. Similarly to fruit, wine will take on a brownish hue when it has been overly exposed to oxygen, indicating that it has gone bad. The development of bubbles in a wine that isn’t meant to be bubbly is evidence of fermentation (not the good kind), which sours and destroys wine.

If your wine seems fine after an initial inspection, put your nose into the bowl of the glass and inhale. To be sure, different wines produce different scents, but those scents should never smell like chemicals or vinegar. If your wine smells anything like the sauerkraut you have in the back of your fridge, it’s time to toss it.

If your wine both looks and smells fine, feel free to give it a taste. While wine that has gone bad will not taste very nice and should be tossed, a small amount won’t necessarily harm you, so it’s safe to test it.

As with the smell test, look for any vinegar, sour, or medicinal flavors. If you’ve already given it a visual and smell test and the taste seems fine, it’s probably safe to drink. Cheers.

Lindsay Parrill
Lindsay is a graduate of California Culinary Academy, Le Cordon Bleu, San Francisco, from where she holds a degree in…
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