Wine Questionary:

Old wine: Is it still any good?

Although some of the finest and most expensive wines are designed to benefit from careful aging at controlled temperatures, 95 to 99 percent of all the wine produced in the world is intended to be drunk up promptly, while it is young and fresh.

Most often, when people find a dusty old bottle of wine in a cabinet, closet or basement, the best that can be said for it is that it's old. Wine that's past its time rarely turns to vinegar, as in older times, but it turns brownish, flat and dull, oxidized to the point where it resembles bad cheap Sherry.

How can you tell whether your old wine is still good? The ultimate test is simple: Pull the cork and take a taste.

As a general guide, the wines that usually reward aging are the robust reds - the better Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhones from France, their counterparts (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah) from the New World; sturdy Italian reds; and the rich, strong dessert wines like Port, Sauternes and the fine late-harvest Rieslings from Germany.

Storage is also a consideration. The ideal "cellaring" temperature for fine wines is 55F, about 13C. If your wine has been kept at much warmer temperatures or subject to extremes of temperature and sudden variations, it is much less likely to have survived many years than a wine kept under constant cool conditions. If your wine bottle appears significantly less than normally full, that's a bad sign. So is evidence of substantial leakage around the cork or excessive sediment in the bottle.

If you're feeling adventurous, old wine can't hurt you. It doesn't turn toxic or unhealthy with age. But if you're planning to try your old wine for a special occasion, it's wise to have a "backup" bottle around to pinch-hit if needed.

For more information on this subject, see these Questionary features: