Here’s a list of all of the things that can cause wine to go bad unopened, along with if you’ll be able to tell the wine’s bad before opening, and what it’ll taste like if you open the wine and drink it.
- Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Oxidation
- Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Brettanomyces Contamination
- Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Volatile Acidity
- Is an Unopened Bottle of Wine with Floaties, Wine Diamonds, and Tartrate Crystals Bad? No
- Wine Can Go Bad Unopened from Cork Taint (TCT)
- Wine Can Go Bad Unopened from Heat Damage
- Unopened Wine Can Go Bad from Lightstrike
- Unopened Wine Can Be Bad from Microbial Issues
- Unopened Wine Can Go Bad from Age
- Final Thoughts: Does Wine Go Bad Unopened? Yes
- Thirsty for More?
Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Oxidation
Oxidation means that the wine gets exposed to oxygen causing it to change color (from pale lemon to deep amber for white wines and from bright ruby to tawny for red wines), lose aromatics, and become dull and muted. Oxidation in a wine that’s unopened can come from two sources: 1) the winery and bottling line, or 2) a faulty closure. Bottling line issues are common with wines. Screwcaps sometimes won’t settle perfectly on the threads of the cap, letting oxygen in.
Can You Tell If a Wine Is Oxidized Before Opening the Bottle? Maybe…
It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to tell that a wine is oxidized before opening the bottle and taking a sniff or sip. If you have a white wine in a clear bottle and can see that it’s a deep amber or yellow color, that can be a clue that something’s wrong with the bottle, but you won’t be able to tell for sure until you open it.
Oxidized wines will taste flat and have a nutty, bruised apple quality to them.
Personal Note: I once purchased a bottle of White Rioja that wasn’t filled all of the way and didn’t realize it until I brought it home. This happened in the bottling line. In this case, if I had opened the wine, I knew it would be oxidized. I didn’t open it and instead brought it back to the retailer to switch out for free.
Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Brettanomyces Contamination
Brettanomyces contamination refers to the presence of the Brettanomyces yeast strain in wine, leading to undesirable aromas and flavors resembling barnyard, band-aid, or medicinal notes. Unopened wines can be affected either during the winemaking process. The winery’s hygiene practices or the choice of barrels can contribute to Brettanomyces development.
Can You Tell If a Wine Has Brettanomyces Before Opening the Bottle? No…
Detecting Brettanomyces contamination before opening a bottle is challenging. Unlike oxidation, which may alter the wine’s color, Brettanomyces’s effects are often hidden until the bottle is opened. Visual cues are minimal, and the true extent of contamination only reveals itself through the distinct aromas and flavors upon opening. If the wine exhibits off-putting characteristics like earthy or medicinal notes, it could indicate Brettanomyces influence, but certainty only comes with a taste test.
Unhelpful Tip: Brettanomyces will smell like barnyard funk or bandaid. You can’t look at a wine affected by Brettanomyces and tell that it’s been affected.
Wine Goes Bad Unopened from Volatile Acidity
Volatile Acidity (VA) is a winemaking flaw characterized by the presence of excessive volatile acids, primarily acetic acid. Unopened wines can develop high levels of VA either during the fermentation process or due to poor winemaking practices. Additionally, flawed closures that fail to maintain a proper seal can allow the intrusion of oxygen, contributing to increased volatile acidity.
Can You Tell If a Wine Has Excessive Volatile Acidity Before Opening the Bottle? No…
No, you won’t be able to tell that there’s a problem with volatile acidity in an unopened bottle of wine. Volatile acidity’s impact is more perceptible through taste and aroma. If the wine has a strong vinegar-like smell or taste, it might suggest elevated volatile acidity. But you’ll need to open the bottle to find out.
Is an Unopened Bottle of Wine with Floaties, Wine Diamonds, and Tartrate Crystals Bad? No
If you see something that looks like tiny crystals or shards of glass or floaties in your wine, the wine isn’t bad and it’s safe to drink. These wine diamonds are natural and happen when the wine gets chilled and tartrate crystals fall out of solution. Tartrate crystals come from the grapes and are 100% natural and safe to drink. Your wine may have these floaties in them if it wasn’t properly stabilized before bottling.
Helpful Tip: Wine diamonds are more obvious in white and rose wines than red wines. Red wines are too dark to see them floating around. Here’s what you need to know about wine tartrates.
Can You Tell If a Wine Has Floaties, Wine Diamonds, and Tartrate Crystals Before Opening the Bottle? Maybe
If you have a clear wine bottle that’s been chilled, you may be able to tell if it has wine diamonds or tartrate crystals by holding the bottle up to the light and looking through the bottom. On the other hand, you may buy a bottle of white or rose wine that looks fine then chill it in the fridge only to have little crystals show up. This is more likely to happen with boutique white wines than inexpensive bulk wines that have the equipment to stabilize their wines.
Remember: Wine diamonds or crystals don’t mean that there’s anything wrong with your wine. The wine’s flavor hasn’t been affected. Drink up!
Wine Can Go Bad Unopened from Cork Taint (TCT)
Cork taint, caused by the presence of trichloroanisole (TCA), is a common issue affecting unopened wines. This flaw occurs when natural cork stoppers are contaminated during the production process. It can also come from wineries infected with TCA. Unopened bottles can develop cork taint if the closure, typically a cork stopper, harbors TCA, imparting musty and moldy odors to the wine.
Can You Detect Cork Taint Before Opening the Bottle? Maybe…
Spotting cork taint prior to opening the bottle is almost impossible. If you have a wine bottle that has a naked cork (no fancy foil cover on top), you may be able to smell cork taint by putting your nose up to the cork and smelling it. However, you’re probably only going to be able to tell that the wine has cork taint by opening up the bottle and doing a sniff test.
Helpful Tip: Here’s everything you need to know about cork taint and how to train yourself to smell it.
Wine Can Go Bad Unopened from Heat Damage
Heat damage occurs when unopened wines are exposed to elevated temperatures, leading to accelerated aging and flavor degradation. This issue can come from transportation or storage, especially if the wine is subjected to prolonged periods of high temperatures, like left in a shipping truck or warehouse during the summer. The result is a prematurely aged wine with diminished vibrancy and altered flavor profiles.
Can You Detect Heat Damage Before Opening the Bottle? No
Spotting heat damage in an unopened bottle of wine isn’t possible. Heat damage doesn’t leave visible indicators on the outside. Tips to minimize heat damage:
- Don’t leave your unopened wine in your car if it’s hot.
- Don’t keep unopened wine near your stove in the kitchen.
- Don’t keep unopened wine on high shelves in your home (heat rises).
Unopened Wine Can Go Bad from Lightstrike
Lightstrike refers to the deterioration of wine caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, often from fluorescent or sunlight. Unopened wines in clear or light-colored bottles are susceptible to this flaw, as UV rays can penetrate the glass and interact with compounds in the wine, resulting in the development of off-putting aromas and flavors, commonly described as “skunky.”
Fun Wine Fact: Most wine bottles are darker in color to help minimize lightstrick. Who knew? (I still am OK with rose wines in clear bottles. They’re sexy.)
Can You Detect Lightstrike Before Opening the Bottle? Maybe…
You probably won’t be able to tell if your wine suffers from lightstrike before opening the bottle because the effects are not visible from the outside. If the wine is stored in clear or light glass, a potential sign could be a change in color, particularly if it appears more yellow or brown than expected. You’ll be able to confirm if lightstrike has affected the wine by opening the bottle and smelling and sipping your wine.
Quick Tips to Avoid Lightstruck Wine
- Don’t buy wine bottles sitting in store windows
- Don’t buy wine bottles sitting at the very top of a store shelf close to lighting.
- Store your unopened wine bottles in a dark place away from light.
Unopened Wine Can Be Bad from Microbial Issues
Microbial issues in wine production can lead to various problems, including the development of unwanted carbonation, commonly referred to as spritziness. This can happen if the wine didn’t fully complete fermentation or the presence of spoilage microbes in the bottle. Additionally, microbial activity can impact closures, causing corks to protrude or even result in cork explosions, compromising the integrity of the unopened bottle.
Can You Detect Microbial Issues Before Uncorking the Bottle? Maybe
You might be able to tell there’s a problem with your unopened wine that’s caused by microbial issues if you see a cork that’s starting to protrude from the bottle. Maybe it’s pushing up against the foil topper or even sticking out several millimeters from the lip of the bottle opening. You’ll be able to tell that there’s visual pressure against the cork.
Of course, like many other problems with unopened wine, the surest way to tell if you have a microbial issue or problem with fermentation is when you taste the wine and feel the bubbles or effervescence on your tongue.
Unopened Wine Can Go Bad from Age
The number one way that wine can go bad in the bottle is age. Most wines are made to be enjoyed within a few years of bottling. Very few wines have the structural qualities needed to age for decades or even longer. If you’re holding onto a bottle of wine for several decades and it wasn’t made for aging, then it will go bad by losing its pleasant aromas and flavors, along with other structural components like acid and tannin (if it’s a red wine). Eventually, the wine will turn to vinegar.
Can You Tell If a Wine Is Bad Because It’s Too Old Before Opening? Maybe
Again, very few wines are made to last for decades. If you discover an old bottle of inexpensive wine in a cupboard, you can guarantee that it’s bad without opening it up. You can still open it and drink it, but it won’t be a pleasant experience.
If you have an old bottle from a renowned producer that’s been stored properly away from light and heat, then you have a chance at a decent drinking experience. This is why people spend money to build temperature controlled wine cellars – to allow their ageable wines to age gracefully.
Final Thoughts: Does Wine Go Bad Unopened? Yes
All wine will eventually go bad unopened. Some problems can be avoided – like light and heat. Other reasons that cause a wine to go bad unopened start back in the winery – like oxygen exposure or spoilage microbes.
You may or may not be able to tell if your unopened wine is bad depending on the cause. But always bee on the lookout for:
- Odd colors
- Hot stores
- Bottles next to sunlight or artificial lights
- Off-colors in clear bottles
- Smelly corks
- Portruding corks
Thirsty for More?
Check out this post on how to tell if your white wine is bad.
Here’s a description of mousiness in wine, a flaw that only some will be able to taste.
Ever wonder what that bitter taste is after swallowing wine? Here’s what you need to know.