One of the biggest problems that casual drinkers and collectors alike face is wine going bad, whether you just bought and opened a bottle and there’s just something funky about it, or you’ve got a huge collection and can’t keep track of how old each bottle is. Since there are few things more heartbreaking than pouring a full bottle of wine down the drain (especially if it’s a favorite), here are some tips for taking care of your wine so it’s less likely to go bad.
First of all, if you have a large collection, keep in mind that the vast majority of wines are not made to age for extremely long periods. Yes, it’s cool to tell people they’re drinking a 30 year old cab, but if the winemaker did not intend for that wine to be aged or it wasn’t stored properly, it’s probably going to taste remarkably similar to vinegar. Only a tiny fraction of wine produced in the world is meant to be kept for decades. A good rule of thumb is to drink your wine within 5 years at the most- less if it’s a light, fruity wine like Sauvignon Blanc. If you’re spending a lot on a bottle of wine and intend to let it age, ask someone at the winery or store where you’re purchasing it how long it can be kept or do some research on your own.
Another important thing to remember is to keep all wine in a cool, dark place. This doesn’t have to be in a proper wine cellar or even a wine refrigerator if you don’t have one, but don’t display your favorite bottles of wine on an open shelf the sun hits for 6 hours a day. A lot of people like to keep bottles on a wine rack on the counter because it’s pretty and convenient. This is okay if you’re not going to keep the wine there for months and if it doesn’t get direct sunlight but it’s going to ruin the wine if you keep it there for a long period. Sun and heat are wine’s mortal enemies.
When I say keep the wine cool, I mean about 53-57 degrees. You don’t want a lot of fluctuation in the temperature, so if you’re not using a cellar, make sure you’re not turning the AC off in the middle of the summer when you’re gone. The heat is going to make the wine age faster, unevenly, and could even spoil it if temps get too hot. Same thing goes for turning the heat off in the winter in Nebraska. Frozen wine is bad, not to mention messy.
Lay the wine down, if possible. Natural cork is often used to seal a bottle of wine. Cork is a funny thing because it’s used to seal bottles of wine and is often used in more expensive wines that actually are meant to be aged. The cork allows oxygen to extremely slowly seep into the bottle, which softens tannins, changes the fruit flavors, and helps the wine develop new flavors due to the oxidation. However, the cork has to be kept moist to prevent too much oxygen from getting in. If wine is kept standing, the cork will eventually dry out and you will have an expensive bottle of vinegar on your hands. If you have a bottle of wine with a screw cap you don’t have to worry about keeping the wine on its side. And no, a screw cap doesn’t mean your wine is cheap. While they’re typically used on wine varietals that generally don’t age well, using a screw cap is the winemaker’s choice and will prevent oxygen from getting into the bottle better than cork; it’s not an indication of the wine’s value.
If you do want to start collecting wine and want to find the sweet spot for ageing, you can start by purchasing several bottles of a favorite vintage and drink a bottle every year or so to see how it develops. At the very least it will be an interesting experiment and you may learn that you prefer a particular wine a little younger or a little older. One thing I often harp on is that wine preference is subjective. While you might like a wine as soon as you buy it, someone else might prefer it a few years later- neither one is wrong.
Like most things in wine, there’s a very good rule of thumb when it comes to drinking wine before it goes bad- don’t overthink it. If you open a bottle and you like the taste, drink it. If not, invite a friend over to try it. If they don’t like it either, make a sangria or cook with it. But no matter what, don’t let it sit in the hot sun for 5 years and then expect it to taste great!