Absolutely. There are a number of reasons why red wine goes off. Just how that tub of leftovers in the fridge seems to lose its freshness every day, or a packet of opened crackers will go stale if not sealed in a container - red wine will lose its vigour if opened for too long, or if stored incorrectly. And nobody wants stale crackers, or off red wine. Sometimes wine is faulty due to no fault of your own – sometimes it’s due to a production error. Other times, it is a trick of the nose that can be rectified.
Let’s break down these culprits one by one, whilst going through the “Wine Dance” – that strange ritual you are asked to perform at the restaurant when you order your bottle. Although commonly understood as a taste-test to see if you like the wine, this is actually performed to make sure the wine is drinkable and not off.
The waiter brings you over your bottle of red wine and asks you to inspect it – yes, the label and the vintage are correct. That’s when you must engage your three senses: sight, smell and taste.
Check is the cork is sodden, or if it’s too dry or crumbling. If it is too wet, it means the wine hasn’t been sealed properly and could be off. If the cork is crumbly, it might mean it wasn’t strong enough to protect the wine from being oxidised. Check the wine in the glass – does it still have a bright colour or has it turned brown? Whilst mature wines will naturally mellow in tone, if your glass of 2017 red Burgundy looks muddy brown, chances are something has gone horribly wrong!
Oxygen can make your wine the most incredible or most repulsive you’ve ever tasted! Depending on age, wine will reach its peak in flavour after some short-term decanting, but after a few hours it will slowly begin to lose its flavours and become flat. At most an open bottle of red can last about 3-4 days, but that is pushing it. If anyone oxygen has come into contact with the wine during storage it’s likely it will have a murky colour or there will be noticeable changes to the cork.
You’re sense of smell is the most loyal ally in deciphering whether a red wine is off or not. Look out for these sometimes pungent and sometimes subtle scents and note the reason for the wines demise:
Oxidation – in white wine can lead to overly nutty flavours, whilst in reds leads to caramelised or bruised apple notes. Too much oxidation produces excessive levels of acetic acid, and the wine can taste like sour vinegar.
Cork Taint – smells like wet dog or wet cardboard, and usually happens during production.
Sulphur Compounds (Reduction) – some reduction can be a good thing for wine, but too little oxygen exposure and it begins to smell like rotten eggs, burnt rubber or skunk. Sometimes this wears off if you decant the wine or stir it, but if the stench is too much or doesn’t fade, don’t drink it.
Secondary Fermentation – was your red wine supposed to be fizzy or lightly sparkling? Did it go through carbonic maceration? If not, then it could have undergone the fermentation process again! This is common when no sulphites have been added to low intervention wines.
Microbial and Bacterial Taint – look out for the delightful stench of a hamster cage, and toss that bottle.
If you’re still not positive, trust your palate. Look out for wines that are vinegar-like, or taste like sour fermented fruit. Also check to see if the wine has lost most of its bold flavour or aromatics– those are both signs that it could be on the turn.
So what can you do?
Drink your opened red wine within a couple of days, and seal it with a cork, screw cap, or using a device that removes oxygen, pop it in the fridge to slow down the oxidation process. When storing your wine keep it out of sunlight, in a cool dark place, and lay it on it’s side.
Please note that fortified red wines like port can last a lot longer – up to a week or two to three weeks if it’s an aged bottle (although extra-special vintage Port should be consumed in one sitting!).