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How to Know If Wine Has Gone Bad

When we say wines “go bad,” we’re referring to several different ways wine is either past its prime or cannot be safely enjoyed. Microbial growth, a second (unintended) fermentation, oxidation, or overheating could all ruin or destroy a wine, making it undrinkable. In today’s blog, we wanted to outline the few ways you can safely tell if a wine is no longer safe or good to enjoy.

The main things to look for include:

  • The taste of volatile acidity
  • The smell of volatile acidity
  • Corked wine
  • Brettanomyces

The Flavor of the Fruit Is Gone

If the fruit compounds of wine have been replaced with a strong, astringent, or “paint-thinner” type flavor, then the wine has gone bad. Avoid it. What you’re tasting is volatile acidity, which is most often caused by an unclean work environment during the wine-making process. Thankfuly, our work environment at Theorem is held to a strict standard of cleanliness for this reason, among others. Most modern wineries like ours will not have an issue with volatile acidity.

It Smells Like Nail Polish Remover (Sometimes)

You can also detect volatile acidity through aroma, although you may not always be able to catch it. Volatile acidity can smell like nail polish remover at high levels. In some cases, low-level volatile acidity can smell like raspberry, cherry, or passion fruit. It can also smell like vinegar.

It Smells Like a Farm

If your wine smells like a farm—that horsey, manure smell of a stable, to be specific—it probably contains high levels of brettanomyces, or “brett.” Brett is a type of yeast that can appear in both red and white wine, but is chiefly a problem for red wines. Low levels of brett lend a spicy note to a wine, but a lot of people find excessive levels of brettanomyces can ruin their experience of a wine.

Brettanomyces isn’t dangerous, but if it gets into a wine, it may limit your enjoyment depending on your sensitivity to its flavor notes.

The Cork Is Pushing Out from the Bottle

If you’re vigilant, you can see when a wine might have gone bad without smelling. If the cork is pushing out, it’s a sign the wine inside has expanded from heat. Heat exposure could cause the fruity notes of the wine to taste bruised, giving the whole wine a “cooked” flavor. Wine that’s been heat-exposed won’t hurt you, but the flavor and character of the wine will be different.

It’s worth mentioning, however, that a pushed-up cork is not a 100% certain sign that the wine has gone bad. A pushed cork indicates that the wine has undergone a process that might limit its potential for aging, so at the very least, you might want to drink that wine sooner rather than later. However, wine bottles with pushed corks might still be drinkable—you’ll just have to open it and trust your palate.

Practice Spotting Bad Wine

One way to get a feel for “bad” wine is to smell it before throwing it out. If you have a wine you know is bad, give it a whiff. This will give you some indication of what a bad wine will smell like.

The more familiar you are with wines gone bad, the better you’ll be able to enjoy wines that are at their prime!