Dear Dr. Vinny,
I found some 20-year-old wine bottles under my house. I cleaned them up, gave then a shake, and now there is a lot of sediment floating around in them. Are they ruined? Or is that normal for wine that old?
—Maxwell, Melbourne, Australia
Sediment is a naturally occurring byproduct of aging wine—it is not a reflection of the quality of the wine or how it was stored. It’s a mix of stuff, commonly referred to as “dregs,” that couldn’t be or wasn’t filtered out of the wine and later starts settling out of the liquid—dead yeast cells, tiny bits of grape skins or seeds, tartrates and any other leftover solids. New solids can also form over time, as phenol molecules combine to form tannin polymers that fall out of suspension. The degree to which a wine accumulates sediment inside the bottle will vary from wine to wine, but I generally expect to start seeing sediment at around the 10-year mark.
As wine ages, it’s best to let that sediment peacefully settle—you really don’t want to disturb it, especially by shaking it up! You didn’t harm the wine at all, but the only thing shaking it accomplished was mixing up the sediment and making the wine cloudy. If you opened it after shaking it, you would probably have a very gritty glass of wine. Before you decide to taste the wine, stand the bottle upright for at least a few days so that all that sediment can settle down to the bottom of the bottle, and then you might want to read up on decanting as an option. Good luck!