Wine actually does go bad once it is exposed to air. In
centuries past, before bottles with corks were invented, one may
wonder how wine ever became popular. Wine was kept in jars, carafes
or barrels, but as it aged it became so foul tasting that all kinds
of things (such as ash or tree resin) got mixed in to keep it
palatable. The only reason for drinking wine was that, as a
fermented beverage, it was relatively safe to drink in comparison
to water at the time.
Even if people got inebriated much of the time, it still kept
them healthier as chances for catching water-borne diseases were
reduced. And, of course, for some the psychotropic effects of wine
were (and probably still are) the main motivation, be it to drown
your sorrows or lose your inhibitions.
But since sealed bottles came along and kept wine fresh for long
times, many find enjoyment in exploring the many tastes in wine, be
it with or without food. And there are so many flavors to be
discovered! Be it by grape or country and region of origin, or just
by personal preference and experience, the complexity of wine is
Of course not everybody likes the same wine, even if critics
like Robert Parker and others influence our perception a great
deal. Whether we like a wine or not is largely a personal choice.
We could call a wine bad just because we don't like it. The problem
however is, there really are bad wines out there and many people
don't recognize the fault in the wine.
It is one of the biggest problems in the wine world. Sure, if
you drink the same wine all the time, as many do, you will
recognize a bottle that's "off." And maybe you are aware that you
can bring it back and get a fresh bottle at every reputable
retailer or restaurant.
But if you're not familiar with a particular wine and just out
to discover something new, it may be harder to call. Most wine
drinkers are familiar with 'corked' wine, but still too many drink
it and blame the wine for the resulting headache.
The culprit is a chemical 'tricloroanisole' or TCA found in mold
growing on cork trees and finding its way into a bottle of wine.
Yet it's not only cork than can carry this unwanted substance:
barrels, cardboard boxes, even the walls or the bottling facility
of a winery may transfer TCA to bottles, even if they're sealed
with artificial corks or screw caps.
And there are other sources for tainted wine, such as the acrid
smell of burnt matches caused by sulfur dioxide; the odor of rotten
eggs from hydrogen sulfide; acetic acid such as in vinegar; lactic
acid smells like a goat or sauerkraut; or ethyl acetate as in
fingernail polish remover.
A bottle that's been exposed to too much heat is 'maderized'
with a cooked or baked odor. If the bottle has been left open too
long, it's most likely 'oxidized' which can resemble a nutty,
caramelized flavor, but is usually too unpleasant and makes the
wine smell and taste flat and unpleasant with a pronounced lack of
Whatever makes a bottle of wine taste bad, don't be shy to
return it. Just be sure not to wait too long and don't drink more
than a taste. You'll get another bottle of the same wine, and
hopefully it'll taste much better. And if not, then it's probably
time to move on and try a different wine.