If you’ve ever had the experience of cleaning out a refrigerator, you have intimate, first-hand experience of a simple fact of life: Nothing lasts forever.
This is especially true of food and other organic material. Any living thing has an expiration date, and before long, anything edible — whether vegetable matter or food of the flesh — will decay. This means that bacteria will take over to digest whatever you didn’t get to and break it down into nutrient-rich compost.
That’s good news for the planet, but bad news for your wine. All wines — from the best quality sherry to the least expensive kind kept in cardboard boxes — will deteriorate over time. The only question is: how long will your favorite wine stay drinkable and delicious?
How Long Does Wine Last Unopened?
The answer to this question depends on two main factors: the type of wine and the storage conditions it was subjected to. In general, an unopened bottle has a much longer shelf life than an opened one. Wine is designed to last for a long time, after all. That’s the whole point of fermenting the grapes and allowing the alcohol to develop in the first place. When grapes are fermented into wine, yeast is added to break down sugar and convert it into alcohol. This helps preserve the juice in two ways. First, the lowered sugar content doesn’t give bacteria as much to feed on, making the spoiling process slower. Second, the addition of all that alcohol makes it much harder for most bacteria to survive, which also keep spoilage at bay. This one-two punch of preservation is what allowed early vintners to ship their fine wines around the world and still have their products stay delicious after long months in a ship’s hold.
Even though wine is designed to last longer than plain grapes or grape juice, it will still break down eventually. In general, here’s what you can expect from the most common types of wine you’re likely to have on hand:
- 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
- Fine Wine: 10 to 20 years
It should be noted that most wines are meant to be drunk shortly after being bottled, while they’re at the peak of flavor and aroma. In general, if you spent less than $30 for the wine, you should drink it within a year or two of purchase at most — and preferably right away! These aren’t bad wines by any means, but they aren’t typically the kind that get better with age, either.
When someone talks about aging a fine wine, they generally mean rich, red wines — think Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot — that are designed to get more mellow over time. These tend to be expensive, and you can’t just ignore them to age them properly. Wine lovers make sure they provide the perfect storage conditions to allow the finest wines to develop their best flavor over the years. Think of this as the one exception to a general rule that you should drink your wine within two years of the expiration date.
Best Practices for Wine Storage
To make sure that your unopened wine lasts as long as possible and still taste amazing when you finally pop the cork, you’ll need to monitor storage conditions. Here’s what you need to know:
Keep Your Wine in a Dark Place
Wine bottles are often made of dark glass to help block out the sun’s rays, but this only goes so far. UV rays will cause a breakdown of the chemical compounds that make your wine smell and taste its best. Keep bottled wine out of direct sunlight to help at last longer.
Pro Tip: Boxed wine is already protected from the sun, which is why producers often go this route, even though it’s less traditional than a corked bottle.
Keep Your Wine Cool
You don’t need a wine cellar to store wine effectively, but you should try to mimic the conditions of an old-fashioned grotto. In the days before refrigeration, wine was stored underground to keep it cool and reduce temperature fluctuations. Because the temperature just below the earth’s surface stays at a steady 53 to 57 degrees year round, it’s the perfect place to keep wine cool for long-term storage. Wine lasts for a longer period when kept at 55 degrees — compare that to today’s standard room temperature of 68 to 72 degrees, and you can see why a cellar is appealing.
If you don’t have an underground cave or even a regular basement, you can easily store your wine bottles in a dedicated wine refrigerator. A good wine cooler will allow you total control over the temperature, so you can adjust it to the perfect temperature for serving when you’re ready to finally open up your collection for drinking.
Pro Tip: Your standard refrigerator is designed for food storage and is typically kept at 38 degrees — too cold for wine. While this won’t hurt your wine at all, you’ll need to warm it up before drinking so you can get the flu impact of its delicate flavors.
Watch the Humidity
Wine bottles sealed with traditional corks need some extra attention to last well in storage. Corked wine needs to be kept relatively humid so that the cork doesn’t dry out. If this happens, it will shrink and allow air and bacteria into the bottle, which will, in turn, lead to a very bad flavor as the wine turns to acetic acid and develops a vinegary taste. Keep the cork moist by storing bottles on their sides. This allows the cork to stay in contact with the wine to absorb the moisture it needs to stay nice and plump.
You Found an Unopened Bottle of Wine in Your Closet — Now What?
So you’re cleaning out your storage area and come across a bottle of unopened wine. Maybe it was a gift, or perhaps you had picked it up to surprise someone and never got around to drinking it. Stuff happens.
Can you drink it now?
As you’ve probably already guessed if you’ve been reading carefully, it depends. Follow these steps to decide if your unopened white wine of California Pinot Noir is still worthy of consumption.
1. Check the Expiration Date
Dust off the bottle and check the expiration date — also known as the “best by” or “drink by” date. Keep in mind that this is just a suggestion about when the bottle will taste its best. With that date in mind, use the chart above to see if your bottle is within range. If so, drink away!
2. Check the Vintage Year
If there’s no expiration date, the vintage date is the next best thing. This is the year emblazoned on the wine label and lets you know what year the grapes were harvested for that particular bottle. If you have this date handy, you can estimate the expiration date easily. Add a year to white wine and two years to red, then use the chart above to see if your wine is with range to drink.
3. Consider the Type or Wine
Remember that fine wines are often meant to be aged, so it would be a shame to throw out a perfectly good — and potentially great — bottle of wine because you didn’t realize it would last. In general, red wines age better than white wines and sparkling wines. Check the label; if you have one of the following, it could be good for decades.
- • Cabernet Franc
- • Syrah
- • Old World Merlot
- • Malbec
- • Grenache
- • Tempranillo
- • Chianti
- • Reserva Rioja
- • Cabernet Sauvignon
- • Barbaresco
- • Red Bordeaux
- • Bandol
Pro Tip: Not sure what you have on your hands? Take it to a local wine shop and ask their opinion about whether it’s worth drinking or should be poured down the drain.
4. Test It Out
If you’re feeling adventurous, you can always open the wine to see what’s up. Start by pouring a bit into a glass and letting it sit for a moment; then give it a sniff. If it smells like vinegar, mold, or acrid like a skunk, you don’t want to drink it.
If it passes the smell test, give it a taste. A tiny bit won’t hurt you (beyond making you want to rinse your mouth out, anyway). If the wine has an off-flavor, you can get rid of it knowing you gave it your best try to save it. If you like it, then drink up! Different varieties last for varying terms, but if you were lucky enough that the bottle was in stable storage conditions, you may have a winner on your hands.
Now That Your Wine Is Open
Once you’re dealing with an open bottle of wine, the clock is really ticking. If you can’t finish it in one sitting, white wine will keep in the refrigerator for a few days, while red wine will last for a few weeks. Keep it sealed with the cork and in an upright position to help it last as long as possible, but drink it soon — opened wine deteriorates fairly quickly!
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