How Old is Too Old?
Copyright 2001 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved. Originally printed Jan 29, 2001. For more information go to www.wineloverspage.com.
"How long can you keep an unopened bottle of wine?"
As reader Carol P. recently asked: "We found an old wine rack at the back of a shelf with 2 bottles of wine dated 1974. Should we throw them away? My husband says that as long as they are unopened, we can drink them safely. I think 27 years is too long to keep wine." Rick, another reader, sent in a similar question about a 1978 Cabernet Sauvignon. This question comes up often enough that it seemed like a good topic for our weekly report.
Old wine won't actually hurt you. As I told Carol, her husband is correct in saying that. Because of its alcoholic content, wine in doesn't rot or spoil in the sense of becoming toxic or unhealthful.
But she is probably correct in assuming that wine kept for 27 years at room temperature has lost all its good fruit flavor and turned brownish and dull with age. Only a few rare and expensive wines can be kept that long, and they should be stored under excellent "cellar conditions," as close as feasible to a constant 55F or 13C.
If you have an old bottle of wine that you meant to drink a long time ago but forgot or lost for many years, what should you do?
If the wine was "ageworthy" - a good quality Cabernet Sauvignon or Northern Italian red, for example, or a Port or other sweet, fortified dessert wine - and if it has been kept on its side at cool room temperature, then it's possible that it may still be drinkable after 10 years, with its chances diminishing with time after that.
But why not have a little fun? Since you know old wine won't poison you, there's no risk in trying it.
Check whether the bottle has lost some of its contents to seepage or evaporation. If it's still normally full, that's a good sign, but an unusually large air space (called "ullage") is not. Hold the bottle up to the light. A small amount of "sediment" stuck to the glass is normal, but a large muddy mass of gunk is not. (If there's some sediment, pour carefully into a decanter or pitcher to separate the clear wine from the sediment. It's not harmful, but it's gritty and muddy and not particularly pleasant.) Do not under any circumstances allow the wine to "breathe." If it has any life yet, it will be fragile and likely lose its enjoyment pretty quickly after you open the bottle.
Don't expect it to be fruity or to taste like a new wine, but if it survived, it will still show some acidity and might have complex aromas and flavors, perhaps showing old-wine characteristics like coffee, cocoa and "earthy" qualities - sometimes odd smells like soy sauce and Chinese spices - in place of the customary fruit. If it's TOO old, it will taste mostly like walnuts (sort of like a cheap Sherry) or worse, and will be brown and full of sediment.
If it smells bad and tastes bad, the chances are you won't WANT to drink it, and you may want to open up something in better condition to enjoy after you've dumped the contents of the old bottles down the drain.