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I am yet to come across a bottle of wine with a 'best before' or 'use by' date. However, it is well known that an unopened bottle of wine tends to spoil after a while - typically years, and quite a lot sooner for inexpensive wines.

High quality wines are often considered age-worthy, with those high in residual sugar such as Sauternes having a legendary aging potential, for 100 years or more in some cases. Professional reviews of fine red wines often indicate a drinking window decades into the future.

So to my question: is there any way to calculate roughly the drinking window of a given wine? Do the pros have a secret formula based on the grape variety, alcohol level, residual sugar, sulfites, and/or other factors? Or is it just down to experience - sampling thousands of wines of various vintages?

What motivated this was the recent discovery of a ten year old bottle of cheap (£5) white wine in a cool dark store room at work - a 2012 Bergerac. Of course, I could just pop the cork and see what it's like, but it had me wondering why retailers never seem to indicate a best before date (assuming correct storage and good closure). Furthermore, can drinking a moderate amount of a wine way past its best cause illness?

I note that bottled beer, with its lower alcohol content, always carries a clear 'best before' date.

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    It can matter quite dramatically how a wine is stored. One afternoon in a hot car trunk can be long enough to spoil wine. Also some red wines would be better to have a "best after" date rather than a "best before" date.
    – Eric S
    Commented Nov 3, 2022 at 22:43
  • A "best after" date would be an interesting thing to see on a label. You tend to see this only on the merchant's blurb or in wine publications, and never at the lower end. I suppose the point at which a wine reaches its peak is subjective to an extent. Conversely, those qualities that indicate when a wine is so far past its best as to be considered spoiled are usually objectively evident, e.g. insipid fruit, cloudy appearance, vinegary, unbalanced. My question about the absence of "best before" dates mainly relates to inexpensive supermarket wine, e.g. <£15 a bottle, assuming correct storage.
    – greenback
    Commented Nov 4, 2022 at 14:31

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A lot of the aging potential of wine (or beer even) has to do with oxygen. If you didn't put a lid on the bottle, it would oxidise pretty quickly as it is exposed to the air. It would go from red to brown, the delicate flavour compounds would also break down. It would look and taste bad. It might also get infected with air borne bacteria. All of this will happen eventually with a lid on the bottle - just much more slowly. We have a couple of friends at least fighting for us against this process. Our friends are anti-oxidants. Tannin, contained mainly in the stalks and skins of grapes is a powerful anti-oxidant. The more tannin, the longer the life. This is why red lasts longer than white as the grape must lies on the grapes to give it colour (anthocyans - also anti-oxidant) and structure (bitterness etc), whereas white wine is from grape juice pressed out straight away. A white made like a red (vin orange) would last longer in the bottle. Another friend in some (many) cases is sulphur. Sulphur is an anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial agent. To answer your question, the amount of free sulphites at the point of bottling can be measured, and these get 'consumed' over a period of time. Therefore, experts with suitable measurements could have a clue as to the longevity of a particular vintage. There is a large amount of subjectivity however as some people value the character that slow oxidisation can bring whilst others like fresh wine. Sherry is a good example, well liked but often highly oxidised. This discussion is also relevant to beer. Hops contain a powerful anti-oxidant called alpha-acid. This can also be measured and so can give you an estimate of the aging potential of a beer. Ever left a half drunk bottle of beer open overnight and tried it the next morning? Eugh! Try taking a sip from a very hoppy modern IPA left out overnight. It's close to drinkable compared with a cheap beer such as (US) Bud that contains few hops.

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