Wine is a beloved drink for many, bringing joy and enhancing meals and moments. However, wine can go bad over time, especially if stored improperly. This leads many wine drinkers to wonder: what happens if you drink old, unopened wine? Is it dangerous? Will it make you sick? Or will it simply not taste very good?
Here’s a quick answer: Drinking old, unopened wine is generally safe, though the flavor and aroma may be off. Very old wine may have potential contaminants, but these are unlikely to cause illness when consumed in the small quantities of wine. The alcohol content may be lower in very old wines. The worst that is likely to happen is an unpleasant taste.
In this article, we’ll explore in more depth what happens when you drink unopened wines that are past their peak drinking age. We’ll look at how wine changes as it ages, factors that influence how well a wine ages, and at what point an old wine is no longer safe to drink. Read on for a deep dive into all things old wine.
How Wine Changes with Age
Wine is a complex, living substance that evolves considerably as it gets older. Young wines have vibrant, fruity, primary flavors that emerge from the grape varietals and recent fermentation process. As wine ages, these “primary” flavors fade while new flavors and aromas emerge from chemical processes that happen inside the bottle over years and decades. An older wine typically develops these secondary and tertiary flavors:
– More earthy, mineral flavors
– Savory notes like mushrooms or leather
– Floral aromas like honey or orange blossom
– Spice elements like pepper, baking spices, or cloves
– Dried fruit flavors like raisins, dates, or prunes
– Nutty flavors like almond, pecan, or walnut
– Caramel, butterscotch, or toffee notes
In general, red wines evolve more considerably over time than white wines. The tannins in red wine become softer, changing the mouthfeel. Acidity may decline, making the wine taste less tart. In whites, the fruity notes disappear faster, leaving more neutrally flavored wine.
Oxygen has likely seeped into the wine over time through the cork, causing slow oxidation. This speeds up the aging process and the emergence of aged flavors. Wine left undisturbed develops less sediment and haze.
Alcohol content in aged wine slowly evaporates over time, leaving wines with less than their original ABV. Port-style wines with higher alcohol age better. pH levels also shift slightly.
What Factors Influence How Well Wine Ages?
Not all wines improve with age – some are meant to be drunk young. Others have the chemical structure to develop enticingly complex flavors over decades. Here are key factors that determine a wine’s aging potential:
– Grape varietal – Hearty reds like Cabernet, Nebbiolo and Sangiovese aged well. Whites like Chardonnay, Riesling and Chenin Blanc have aging potential. More delicate wines like Pinot Noir, rosé and Sauvignon Blanc are best young.
– Winemaking style – Wines with less intervention like natural wine don’t tend to age as well. Structured, concentrated wines with complex tannins, high acid and oak age best.
– Alcohol content – Wines above 13.5% have better aging capacity. The alcohol acts as a preservative.
– Acidity – Higher acid helps wines retain freshness. Acidity declines naturally over time.
– Tannins – Red wines with more robust tannins age better as they soften over time.
– Residual sugar – Sweeter wines have longer aging potential thanks to sugar’s preservative effects.
– Oak treatment – Time in oak barrels adds complex, spicy flavors and contributes tannins. This gives wine another dimension as it evolves.
– Fortification – Port, Madeira and Marsala are “fortified” with brandy. This boosts alcohol and longevity.
– Starting quality – A high-quality wine with complexity has more nuanced flavors to develop as it ages. Faulty wines don’t age well.
– Storage conditions – Ideal wine storage is 55-60°F with 60-75% humidity and no vibration. Consistent conditions preserve wine best.
How Long Can You Safely Store and Drink Unopened Wine?
So how long can you hang onto an unopened bottle before it goes bad? Here are some general guidelines for maximum aging times for wines at optimal storage conditions:
– Delicate white and sparkling wines – 1-3 years
– Rich whites like Chardonnay – 3-5 years
– Rosé wines – 2-4 years
– Light reds like Pinot Noir – 5-7 years
– Cabernet, Merlot and Bordeaux blends – 10-15 years
– Syrah, Sangiovese, Zinfandel – 8-12 years
– Nebbiolo and high-quality Champagne – 15-20 years
– Port, Sherry, Madeira, Sauternes – 30+ years
The above times are when wines are likely to be at their peak drinking qualities. However, wine can often last longer than the estimated prime drinking window, especially in ideal storage conditions. The flavors simply start fading and drying out.
Very old wines may lose all fruitiness and take on a nutty, oxidative quality. Think flavors like sherry, dried fruit and orange peel. Some may find these aged flavors appealing, while others may find the wine past its prime. Drinkability comes down to personal taste preferences for older wine profiles.
How Can You Tell if an Older Wine is Bad?
While unopened wine has a long shelf life, it can eventually go bad. Here are signs that an aged, unopened wine has spoiled and is not safe to drink:
– Vinegar aroma – Wine turning to vinegar, which develops an acetic, vinegary smell
– Off odors – Unpleasant funky, dirty, rotten smells
– Discoloration – Extreme darkening or lightening of color, murky appearance
– Sediment – Thick sediment that doesn’t dissipate when swirled
– Wine seeping through cork – Leakage indicator the seal has failed
– Mushroom aroma – Produced by the chemical 1-octen-3-one which is a sign of bacterial spoilage
– Fizzing upon opening – Carbonation when you uncork is a red flag for fermentation re-starting
– Mold – Visible fuzzy mold patches on the cork or inside the bottle
A wine that seems off should be discarded, especially red wines. Whites have a slightly better chance of being palatable. But you don’t want to take risks with spoiled wine.
Potential Health Risks of Drinking Bad Wine
Drinking spoiled, oxidized wine is unlikely to make you seriously ill. But there are some potential health issues to be aware of:
– Allergies – Histamines and sulfites can trigger headaches, flushing and stuffy nose in sensitive individuals.
– Gastrointestinal distress – Stomach ache, nausea or diarrhea from acetic acid, sulfites, biogenic amines or pathogens.
– Headache – Tyramine, sulfites and histamines are vasodilators that can cause wine headaches. More concerning in aged wine.
– Toxicity – Ethyl carbamate and ochratoxin A are carcinogens produced as wine ages. Levels permitted in wine are low.
– Infections – Mold and bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus can rarely cause illness. This is highly unusual in wine.
– Allergic reaction – Old wine may contain more histamines. Sulfites can also trigger allergy-like symptoms.
Health risks relate to faulty, flawed wines. When wine ages correctly, risks are minimal. But drink in moderation since older wines are more likely to contain compounds that affect sensitive individuals. Discard any wine that tastes off or seems contaminated.
Tips for Safely Drinking Older Wine
Follow these tips for safely enjoying older vintages of wine:
– Inspect the cork and wine color – Re-corked, crumbly corks and murky, brown color are red flags.
– Check for off aromas – Sniff carefully for vinegary, musty or rotten odors.
– Start with a small taste – Sample a small sip first to gauge flavors before drinking more.
– Use sterilized glassware – Wash glasses well with hot water, not just a rinse.
– Decant old red wine – Pour into a decanter to separate sediment then into glasses.
– Don’t keep wine too long after opening – Consume older wines within 2-3 days.
– Discard corked or contaminated wine – Don’t take risks with wine that seems spoiled.
– Drink in moderation – Stick to 1-2 glasses due to higher risks of biogenic amines.
– Avoid if pregnant – Biogenic amines may pose pregnancy risks.
Being cautious allows you to enjoy aged wine safely. But if in doubt, remember the old adage: “When in doubt, throw it out.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are answers to some common questions about drinking older, unopened wine:
Does unopened wine go bad?
All wine will eventually go bad if left for too long. Unopened bottles last much longer since they aren’t exposed to oxygen.Estimate 1-2 years for delicate wines and 5-10 years for sturdy red wines before quality really declines. At around 20-30 years, unopened wine runs a higher risk of being oxidized or spoiled.
Can old wine make you sick?
Properly aged wine is unlikely to cause sickness. Any hazardous compounds would be in very low amounts. However, wine gone bad from heat damage, microbial spoilage or cork failure could potentially cause health issues. This is quite rare. The worst that is likely to happen is an unpleasant taste or headache. Still, discard wine that seems contaminated or causes stomach upset.
What happens if you drink vinegar?
Accidentally sipping soured, vinegary wine won’t seriously harm you. You may get an upset stomach or headache from the acetic acid. The main risk is an unpalatable taste. So long as it was sealed, the amount of vinegar likely won’t be toxic. But you may wish to rinse your
mouth after to avoid tooth damage from acidity.
Does wine lose alcohol as it ages?
Yes, wine steadily loses alcohol through gradual oxidation as it ages, even if unopened. The alcohol percentage dissipates over time through the cork and the wine evaporates. Over 10-30 years, a wine can lose 1-3% ABV. Higher alcohol wines like Port are less affected. The loss intensifies once opened.
Do old wines improve with decanting?
Yes, decanting aged wines is highly recommended. This aerates old wine and separates sediment so it can be poured cleanly into glasses. Decanting allows old, tannic reds like Bordeaux to open up and become more balanced. Young wines also benefit from decanting.
Can old wine make you drunk faster?
There’s no evidence that older wines cause faster inebriation. In fact, older wines tend to have lower alcohol due to evaporation over time. They may affect you quicker if drinking on an empty stomach because of subtle flavor compounds. But the actual alcohol content will be lower rather than higher. Drink
Is it safe to drink wine with mold on the cork?
No, you shouldn’t drink wine with visual mold on the cork. This is a sign of cork failure and probable wine spoilage. The mold implies air has entered and bacteria may have developed. Don’t take risks drinking wine that shows signs of leakage or contamination.
The Bottom Line
Drinking old, unopened wines that have been properly stored is generally safe and enjoyable. Over time, flavors evolve in nuanced ways that many wine enthusiasts enjoy. However, truly old wines above 20-30 years should be inspected for soundness before drinking. Look for indicators like seepage, off aromas or visible mold. If a wine seems fine, decant it before serving to improve the taste. Most importantly, be conservative and discard any wine that seems contaminated or causes stomach upset after a small taste. Moderation is key, as older wines may harbor higher amounts of biogenic amines. With proper handling, though, aged wines can provide a delicious glimpse into previous vintages.