What makes wine go bad?
Does your wine smell or taste like vinegar, wet cardboard, rotten eggs, matches, or is overly jammy? Let’s talk through a few things that may have caused your wine to go bad.
1. Vinegar or nail polish smell (Oxidized)
This is the most common issue with opened wines and is the result of oxidation spoiling the wine. What you are smelling is acetic acid, the main ingredient in vinegar. This smell is common for spoiled wine. This means the wine has had too much contact with oxygen (found in the air) that has caused it to turn.
Most of the time, this occurs with wine that has been open for a few days. Occasionally, unopened wine oxidizes through the cork. Sometimes this is by design, for example, heavy red wines from Bordeaux are famously expensive and age for decades. This oxidization slowly softens the wine over time.
Generally, most wines should be consumed within a year (particularly wines that are under $50 per bottle). Saving a wine for years longer than designed may lead to oxidized wine.
Bad News: There is no real fix for oxidized wine. Your best bet is to use it in cooking and preventing it next time.
2. Wet cardboard, wet dog, musty attic (Cork Taint or TCA)
If your wine smells musty or like wet dog, it is affected by cork taint. The wine is typically described as being “corked”. This is a flaw caused by a compound called TCA or 2, 4, 6-trichloroanisole. TCA is created by fungi that can contaminate natural corks. This only affects wines sealed with natural corks. The wine will not hurt you if you drink it, but it can be unpleasant to the taste.
Bad News: There is nothing you can do except drink the wine or cook with it. It also historically affected as many at 1 in 10 bottles of wine, though modern cork manufacturers have brought this down to around 1% of wines.
3. Rotten eggs or burnt rubber (Overbearing Sulfur Compounds)
You are smelling strong sulfur compounds like hydrogen sulfide. This happens when the wine’s fermentation does not go according to plan.
Good News: If you have a clean copper coin, you can fix this issue by dropping it in the bottle and waiting a few days.
4. Matches (Aggressive Sulfites)
Does it smell like someone extinguished a match in your wine? You are smelling aggressive sulfites.
Sulfite compounds such as sodium bisulfide prevent oxidation (see #1) in the wine. But, if the winemaker overuses them, you may start to notice and smell them. Sulfites are not found in organic or certain ‘natural’ wines. (Though the definition of natural is not well defined nor a guarantee of purity).
Good news: You can sometimes aerate the smell out of your wine. Use an aerator or some skilled swirling.
5. Jammy or unexpectedly sweet (Heat Damage)
Wines exposed to heat often turns unpleasantly sweet. This can happen with wine shipments that go through hot spots in the summer (looking at you California and Arizona). It can also happen to shipments left on docks or in hot cars.
Good News: If your wine has heat damage, you can turn that overly sweet wine into sangria.
Additional frequently asked questions about bad wine…
Can unopened wine go bad?
It’s more common for the wine to go bad after opening (due to oxidation, see the article on how to keep wine fresh). But the same things that can spoil open bottles can also spoil unopened bottles of wine.
These include (from above):
1) Oxidation - Vinegar/nail polish smell in your wine
2) Cork Taint (wet cardboard smell in your wine)
3) Too many sulfur compounds - rotten egg or burnt rubber smell in your wine
4) Too many sulfites – match smell in your wine
5) Heat Damage – overly sweet or jammy wine
Will drinking bad wine make you sick?
Not usually. That said: we promise it won’t taste very good. The bad wine may give a burning feeling in your throat like hard liquor due to the acetic acid.
If the wine is oxidized (up to about 14 days) you should be okay to drink it, if you're desperate. If the wine is a month old, it will probably hurt your stomach. There will also be a general burning in your throat from the acetic acid.
What do I do with bad wine?
The most enjoyable way to deal with bad wine is to use it in cooking. Most meat dishes can take some moderate or even heavily spoiled wine. It also goes well in heavy soups (veggie or meat-based).
Need more wine basics? Check out our Wine Guide below!