Is it bad if an old bottle of wine has sediment in it?

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Dear Dr. Vinny,

I have a Syrah from 1978 that looks like it has sediment inside the bottle. Is that bad?

—Doreen, Lewes, Del.

Dear Doreen,

Sediment happens! I’d be more surprised if a wine that old didn’t have sediment. It’s a natural byproduct of winemaking: When grapes are crushed, bits of grape skins, stems and seeds can make their way into the juice, and after the wine is fermented, spent yeast cells, polymers and tartrates can remain. Most wines are filtered to remove that particulate matter, some of those tiny particles can remain in the wine before eventually falling out of suspension and collecting as sediment inside the bottle.

Over the years, phenolic compounds like tannins and other polyphenols can bond to create additional sediment. Among those phenolic compounds are pigments, which is why a wine’s color also starts to fade as it ages. You’ll probably notice these changes starting to occur about a decade after a wine is made.

Sediment is perfectly safe to drink, but it’s quite gritty and unpleasant. If you have an old bottle of wine that you suspect contains sediment, I recommend standing it upright for a few days before you plan to open it. Regardless, you want to open those old bottles of wine very gently, so as not to stir up all that gritty sediment. For serving tips and a guide to decanting a wine off of its sediment, check out our guide to decanting!

—Dr. Vinny

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