Picture yourself after a long day at work, kicking off your shoes and wandering wearily into the kitchen to pour a glass of your favorite wine. You definitely deserve it after putting out fires and sitting in traffic, and all that’s left to do is to pop the cork and fill the glass before settling into your chair for the night. You’re just a moment away from calling it a day as you raise the glass to your lips and sip.
And then it hits you. Your wine tastes sour and acrid, more like vinegar than the mellow, complex flavors you love.
If this has ever happened to you, you already know one of the dark secrets about your favorite vintage: wine definitely does expire.
Like anything natural, wine doesn’t live forever. Eventually, anything carbon-based — you, me, fruit and food — will decay. Wine happens to last much longer than many things, but it too will eventually degrade as microorganisms begin their slow process of consuming that nice bottle that you had hoped to enjoy yourself.
Fortunately, there are ways to help your wine last longer and stay at its best. Understanding a bit about how wine breaks down and some best practices for proper storage of quality wines will help you avoid an unpleasant experience with a bottle gone bad.
Here’s what you need to know.
Understanding Wine and Its Shelf Life
Before diving into specific expiration dates, it’s helpful to know a bit about the history of wine to understand its place in the food chain, so to speak. Wine is made through the process of fermentation, in which living yeast meets sugar and begins to eat. As the yeast cells consume the sugar to live, they create alcohol as a byproduct. Eventually, the alcohol content will become too high and kill the yeast, which stops the fermentation process.
Alcohol is very useful for killing off other microorganisms, too — especially bacteria. Since bacteria can’t grow well in wine, it lasts much longer than many other fresh foods. Hundreds of years ago, wine was often safer to drink than unsanitary water, and people kept it around and improved on it over time.
Wine may last a while, but it doesn’t last forever. Shippers and traders discovered this when attempting to send wine on long ocean journeys. Alas, the wine heated up and continued to ferment, often turning into vinegar thanks to spoilage caused by acetobacter bacteria. These bacteria typically get into wine when it’s exposed to air over long periods, as the wine in rickety wooden casks would have been. Over time, the bacteria consume the wine and create not more alcohol but acetic acid, or vinegar, instead.
While red wine vinegar can be yummy, shippers began to add liquor to their casks to keep bacteria at bay and to stop all fermentation processes. These wines became known as fortified wines, and you can still drink them today in the form of port, sherry and madeira. Fortified wines were designed to withstand months of adverse conditions without refrigeration.
How to Recognize Spoiled Wine
Fortunately, today’s shipping practices are much faster, and your wine doesn’t have to languish at sea for months at a time to get to your doorstep. It still won’t last forever, though, and many wines are meant to be consumed fairly young. Only the sturdiest of red wines with the highest alcohol content have any chance of being cellared — the fancy oenophile word for storage — for years at a time to let them age.
Bad wine is usually easy to recognize. First, take a sniff. If the nose of the wine reeks more of vinegar than of the fruity aromas you were expecting, or if you smell a foul odor, you probably don’t need to taste it at all to know that it’s gone off and should be discarded.
If you’re not certain, pour the wine into a glass and have a look. Sparkling wine should have visible carbonation, and bubbles should rise slowly to the surface. Red and white wine should be translucent when held up to the light. If the color has turned brown or the wine appears thick or opaque, it’s a sign that it has oxidized or otherwise spoiled.
If you truly don’t want to let the wine go without a taste, take a cautious sip. Wines that taste like vinegar or are overly bitter, sour or musty are spoiled and should be discarded. There are as many flavors of bad wine as bacteria that break them down, but none of them will be pleasant.
How Long Does Wine Last?
Like many packaged foods, bottled wine can live a long, healthy life well past its “sell by” date as long as you keep the lid on or the cork in place. Once corked wine is opened, however, the wine is exposed to aerial bacteria and anything else that touches it, which means that the clock is ticking on its lifespan. Wine with sulfur dioxide added as a preservative can last longer than untreated wines, but as a general rule, here’s what to expect:
For Unopened Bottles
- White Wine: 1-2 years past the expiration date
- Red Wine: 2-3 years past the expiration date
- Cooking Wine: 3-5 years past the expiration date
If your wine wasn’t marked with a clear “sell by,” “best by” or expiration date, consider the day you bought it to be the point from which you count. Use a felt-tip pen to make a note on the label, or attach a note with a rubber band as a reminder how long your wine has been in storage.
For Opened Bottles
- White Wine: 1-3 days in the refrigerator
- Red Wine: 1-2 weeks in the refrigerator
- Cooking Wine: 1-2 months in the refrigerator
Interestingly, inexpensive wine boxes often last much longer than even good wine bottles. This is because the liquid is stored in an opaque bag sealed by a vacuum pump, and this keeps the wine in a dark environment that also seals out bacteria. Because the wine is much less likely to be contaminated with bacteria, it can last for up to a year in the fridge after it’s opened. It’s up to individual wine lovers whether this increased shelf life is worth the quality trade off for box wine.
How to Help Your Fine Wines Last Longer
The biggest secret to helping wine keep well for long periods of time is in how you store it. Although red wines are often served at room temperature, long-term storage conditions should be significantly cooler. The ideal temperature for storing wine — red, white or sparkling — is 55 degrees, though you could go as cool as 50 degrees if you like. This mimics the earth’s stable temperature underground, which is what conditions would be like in a traditional wine cellar: the classic cool, dark place.
For modern wine drinkers, a dedicated wine cooler will provide the most stable temperatures to keep everything from dessert wines to a California Cabernet Sauvignon in peak condition. Look for one with UV protection, which keeps out the sun to provide a dark place for wine to rest without being degraded, and keep bottles on their sides so the corks stay moist and plump for a strong seal.
Bottled white wines like a Sauvignon Blanc should be closed and chilled between pours, so consider using a wine stopper if you can’t reinsert the cork. Likewise, reds should be stoppered between pours; even a rubber band and a paper towel is better than nothing.
Unfortunately, exposure to air is a double-edged sword for many red wines. Lighter reds like Pinot Noirs will go bad more quickly, so you should reduce the amount of oxygen they get if you plan to store any leftover wine. Heavier reds like Merlots or Burgundies should breathe to reach their fullest flavor, though. If you can’t finish a bottle of red that needs to breathe in one sitting, compromise by pouring half into a decanter with a wide base to let your wine breathe and store the other half covered in the fridge. You can let your reds come back up to room temperature before pouring to finish them, but storing opened wine at room temperature is a recipe for disaster.
Finally, opened wine should be stored upright rather than on its side. This reduces the amount of wine exposed to air, so it will keep longer.
Tips for Using Leftover Wine
In an ideal world, you would finish a bottle of wine the evening you open it to avoid having to refrigerate it and worry about its proper storage, so you may want to get creative if you find you aren’t always finishing your wine. You can use good wine for cooking. Consider adding red wine to your pasta sauce for extra favor, or use white to deglaze a pan to make a delicious sauce. You can also freeze the wine in an ice cube tray for use in recipes that call for only a few tablespoons at a time, which will keep you from sacrificing a perfectly good bottle later. There are also plenty of recipes that call for wine, so try planning your next meal around your leftovers to avoid having the wine go bad.
With proper storage and a little attention to detail when you open and serve your wine, you can help your favorite bottles last longer. Most wine will live beyond the date on its label, but you should always keep your nose and eyes open for signs of degradation before you knock back a swig. It’s pretty rare to lose a bottle of wine before opening, but knowing what to look for will keep you from an unpleasant wine tasting experience.
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