4 questions: How long natural wine is good for?

By Dave Schavone

Recently we talked about natural wine flaws, which result in off flavors that can be smelled or tasted in wines that have been mishandled either in the winemaking process or after the wine is bottled. While it’s good to be able to identify these flaws, and even better to know what you can do to prevent them, all wine will eventually go bad. Even the most well made and carefully handled wine will lose flavor, become brownish in color, and start to taste acidic and medicinal. When it comes to ruining wine, Father Time is undefeated.

Are all wines meant to be aged?

A wine can spoil before the bottle is even opened. In a basic way, all wine wants to become vinegar. Even in a sealed bottle, wine will interact with whatever oxygen is present in the bottle, plus whatever seeps through the closure, to finish the chemical transformation into vinegar. This is one of the ways sulfur helps preserve wine: sulfites bond with the oxygen molecules before they can do their damage.

Some wines are meant to be aged in the bottle for years or even decades before they reach their peak. The very best Bordeauxs, Barolos, Burgundys, and Riojas are examples of wines that are best enjoyed well after bottling. For example, the 1982 Bordeauxs from the Left Bank, primarily made from Cabernet Sauvignon, are in their prime now, 40 years after being harvested. If you have a stash of ’82 Bordeaux and you’re wondering if they’re still good to drink, I’ll happily come by, pop a few corks, and give you my professional opinion.

What is the shelf life of natural wines after opening them?

For the roughly 95% of wines that are meant to be enjoyed within a year or two of bottling, spoilage is only a concern once the bottle is open. Once the cork is pulled, the wine is in full contact with air, meaning the oxidation process has kicked into high gear. Most wines are only good for 12-24 hours after the bottle is opened. No reasonable amount of sulfur will slow this, but there are things you can do to get a few extra days out of your bottle.

How do I keep natural wine fresh once opened?

One option is to use a device like a Coravin to limit how much air your wine comes into contact with. These devices can get pricey, but have been known to extend the life of a bottle for months after the first pour. Vacuum corks are much less effective than a Coravin, but are much cheaper and easier to use. These can extend the drinkability of a wine for 7-14 days. Another easy method is to keep your wine refrigerated between pours. This can extend the life of a bottle by 3-5 days.

What’s the role of sulfur in making natural wine last longer?

The big exception to these already very general rules are natural wines with no added sulfur, and especially so-called “zero/zero” wines where nothing is added or removed throughout the winemaking process. While it would be easy to say that these wines tend to spoil faster, I’ve had zero/zero wines last for days after being opened. With this style of wine, every bottle is truly unique and can behave very differently from bottle to bottle.

While there are very few universal rules in wine, this one pretty much always holds true: whether it’s a weird natty blend or one of the finest wines ever made, my favorite method for ensuring your wine doesn’t spoil is to just finish the bottle.