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When Is a Wine No Longer Good to Drink?

Not until you've opened the bottle and decided for yourself

Posted: Jul 29, 2014 12:00pm ET

By Dana Nigro

Among the questions we commonly get at Wine Spectator—or that my cartoon colleague Dr. Vinny gets—are: "I found a bottle of wine that's X years old. Is it still good?" and "When should I drink wine Y?"

We have lots of ways to answer those—our drink window for that wine suggests Z; it depends on how it was stored; it depends on whether you like aged wine. But they boil down to one simple tenet: You won't know for sure until you open it.

Whatever we can tell you—our drink recommendation predicts it was at its best 10 years ago or has five more to go; you found it in the back of a warm closet or you've cellared it perfectly; it's a cheap bottle from a region with no track record or a collectible that can age decades—it's our best guess. Bottles vary, unpredictably.

This was driven home to me recently. One weekend, I was reorganizing my cellar and found, at the bottom of a stack, a box labeled "drink now"—two years ago, before we moved. All were drink through 2011 or 2012. Not so bad. It's a window, not an expiration date, and our editors tend to be conservative with their recommendations.

I pulled a few to try with our next dinners. A 2003 Douro red still had loads of dark fruit but lacked the complex nuances I had loved before. But the Bodega Colomé Malbec Calchaqui Valley 2006 was plush with blackberry and black figs, licorice, baking spices and savory notes, with a long, juicy finish-in perfect condition. Had I stored it any better than the other before being packed in that box? I doubt it.

Another weekend, I discovered a bizarre refrigerator malfunction had caused the freezer to get so cold it froze several bottles on the top and center shelves of my fridge. (But not the bottom. And here I thought cold air sank.) For anyone wondering, yes, when wine freezes, it really does expand and push the cork out, causing liquid to seep out, dribbling into a sticky pool. Lots of scrubbing and baking soda were required to keep our fridge from smelling like a barroom's back alley. All is lost, I lamented.

Not so. A Puligny-Montrachet with its cork two-thirds out was all browned apples, but two days later, a 2004 German Riesling spätlese that had lost at least an inch of liquid showed honeyed peach, pear and slate-not quite what it should have been but far better than we had any reason to expect. Two Top 100 of 2005 reds—a Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a Ribera del Duero that I'd been "protecting" from the summer heat—had low fill levels but fared startlingly well, still with rich, fresh fruit and mineral notes.

So no matter how dire the situation looks, pop the cork or twist the cap and find out for yourself. What's the worst that can happen? You get a mouthful of an unappealing, vinegar-like liquid. And you learn something about what happens to wine under the conditions to which your particular bottle was exposed. Approach the wine with an open mind (and just have a backup bottle on hand).

What wines have you been surprised by—pleasantly or otherwise—after opening them?

David Peters
Mission Viejo, CA —  July 31, 2014 6:55pm ET
In June of this year we attended a private party at Columbia Crest for members of their Reserve Club. While there I noticed they had a few bottles left in their retail store of their 2000 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. I bought a bottle and had their head winemaker, Juan Munoz-Oca, autograph it thinking I'd keep it as an expensive souvenir. But alas, I couldn't resist. Three days latter we took the bottle to a friend's home in Richland, WA where we were having dinner. Wow, what a surprise; we expected the wine (at 14 yrs. of age) to be struggling to hold on for dear life. Well it was a wee bit past it's prime but not by a whole lot. Still ample fruit, with nice acidity still giving it the backbone. The tannins were ultra fine, giving it quite a silky mouthfeel and finish. It was a true testament how well Washington wines can pass the test of time.

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