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Debunking Some Wine Myths

by David on July 31, 2010

Pouring wine into glassesIs it important to smell the cork? Are the “legs” a sign of quality? Is older wine always better? There are persistent truths and myths, when it comes to wine. Let’s take a look at some of the most common ones.

Older Is Better

In surveys, this is one of the most pervasive misconceptions of all. In reality, the vast majority of wine is meant to be consumed within just a few years of the vintage date. Fortunately, if the wine is over the hill it won’t hurt you, but what a disappointment to open a treasured old bottle only to find out that it’s turned brown and smells like bad sherry!

Then, which wines to age? Whites are almost always better when they’re young, and it gets more complicated with reds, sparkling wines and dessert wines. There are four important things to remember:

  1. Optimum drink-ability is subjective.
  2. Fruitiness is always a youthful trait, so if you like your wine fruity, drink it young.
  3. With very few exceptions, if the wine has been released it’s considered drinkable and further bottle-aging should be seen as an option, not a necessity.
  4. You shouldn’t be afraid to ask questions when you’re buying wine. This aging business is kind of complicated and it can be worth a few dollars extra to buy your wine at a specialty shop, where the staff is knowledgeable.

The companion myth for this one is that “older is always more valuable”. Don’t you believe it! It may be more valuable, but investing in wine is a very tricky business and unless you really know what you’re doing you could end up with a cellar full of oxidized wine you can’t even give away.

You can listen or read for more detailed information on aging and cellaring.

Good Legs Are a Sign of Quality

This is a myth that truly has legs! “Legs”, “candles” or “tears” refer to the little driplets that come down the sides of your glass. The alcohol gives wine its legs and a high alcohol wine may well have very nice legs but, as you know, high alcohol is not necessarily a good thing. Winemakers are always looking for balance, so you can discount this myth.

The roots of the myth may exist in the old country where the cool climates in many regions make it difficult to reach 12% alcohol and above. Many regions establish minimum alcohol levels, among other requirements, in order to gain appellation status.

For more detailed information, check out our blog.

You Must Sniff the Cork After the Server Opens The Wine

There may be that occasional surprise but, in almost every case, the cork smells like a cork. You might take a look at it. It’s a rare restaurant that tries to pull a fast one, but it can’t hurt to make sure the information on the cork like the brand and vintage date matches the label. If the wine has been stored properly one end of the cork should be wet so you know it’s been swollen with wine to create a tight seal. If there are signs of seepage, that’s a little ominous but, in reality, there’s nothing the cork can tell you that the wine can’t tell you much better and faster. So, smelling the cork really isn’t necessary. But, never pass up the opportunity to smell and taste the wine. Never doubt that if something’s wrong you’ll know it! You can read or listen to more information on restaurant etiquette.

Screw caps are Only For Cheap Wine

It’s not really fair to call it a myth because there was a time when this was generally true. But, things have changed amazingly rapidly in the past decade. An increasing number of respected brands have begun using screw caps and other cork alternatives to seal their wine. According to recent surveys, public opinion is that this has to do with cost, which is certainly an undeniable factor, but there are other forces at work. A big reason for the move to alternatives is the phenomenon called cork taint. No one seems to agree on the frequency, but from time to time a bad cork taints the wine so that it smells musty and moldy. It’s not harmful, but it ruins the wine and some winemakers don’t want to deal with the risk any more.

It’s ironic that the new closures have become so widely accepted now that the cork industry has nearly solved most of the cork taint issues. In fact, many would say that the only reason the cork industry went to work on this problem was because of the threat of being replaced by other closures. Our supplier has access to cutting edge means for measuring trichloroanisol, the substance that causes the taint, and has also developed a very sophisticated way of removing it. Other companies are doing similar work, and it probably won’t be long before cork taint is no longer an issue. But, for the sake of full disclosure, it should be said that there are other ways for wine to be tainted by trichloroanisol although they’re far less common.

The same surveys indicate that the acceptance of screwcaps is much greater in the southern hemisphere than in Europe or the US but, world-wide, a large majority still prefers natural cork, especially if the wine is over $15.00 a bottle. You can read or listen to more detailed information about cork alternatives.

It’s Important To Pull the Cork and Let the Wine Breathe

The point of this practice is to get some air into the wine, but if you take a look, you’ll see that there’s very little opportunity for exchange through that skinny little neck. You have some much better options.

Try pouring the wine out of the bottle into a decanter an hour or so (unless it’s old) before dinner. Moving the wine from one container to another exposes it to air and the time just sitting is beneficial too. If you forget to decant the wine, just pour it into the glasses on your dinner table a little ahead of time and it will change quite rapidly just by sitting there.

Which wines to decant? Most any wine except a sparkling wine will benefit, but reds, especially young ones, seem to benefit the most. If it’s a young, tannic red go ahead and splash it into the decanter. If it’s an old red then stand it up for several hours to get the sediment to the bottom. Then decant it off the sediment at serving time and down the hatch! Older reds shouldn’t be decanted too early because if the wine is tired, the extra air might just push it over the hill. You can read or listen to more information on wine service at home

Swirling the Wine Is Pretentious

There’s so much fuss associated with wine it’s hard to sort out what’s practical and what’s pretentious. Swirling may look pretentious, but it’s actually a very practical way to get more enjoyment out of your wine and is even more efficient that decanting.

The next time you have a glass of wine, try a little experiment. After pouring (don’t fill the glass more than about 1/3 full), smell the wine. Then swirl it vigorously for several seconds and smell it again.

The reason the wine is so much more fragrant is that aromatic esters that were bound in the liquid have been released as vapor. For what wine costs, it’s smart to get every bit of enjoyment out of it you can! You can read or listen to more tasting tips.

Reserve Wines Are Better

There are a number of marketing terms that appear on the label but have no meaning. Much of what you read, such as the place of origin or the variety, has legal requirements behind it. Other terms, such as “reserve”, or “old vine” may indeed identify wines of great character and quality but the actual terms are not regulated. Same with “special selection”, “mountain”, “limited release”, the list goes on and on. For information on label regulations, click here.

Serve White Wine Chilled and Red at Room Temperature

These well intentioned guidelines are just a little off or out of date. White wines and sparklers are always more refreshing if you serve them with a bit of a chill, especially on a warm day, but consider this: When you heat a pot of soup, you can smell it all over the house. If you take the left-over soup out of the fridge the next day it has almost no aroma. Cold wine straight from the fridge doesn’t have much fragrance either. If you’re opening a really nice bottle, you want to get the full enjoyment so serve it cool enough to be refreshing, maybe low to mid 50s, but not too cold. If it’s in the fridge, just take it out a half-hour or so before you serve it. If it’s a hot day and you want ice-cold wine, don’t waste your money on a fine white. Just pick up a simple white and have it cold, even toss in an ice cube, and enjoy!

Has anyone ever served you warm red wine? Most reds taste bitter if they’re too cold, but the term “room temperature” must have been coined in the old days and they meant room temperature in some old European castle! 72 degrees is too warm to be pleasant and accentuates the alcohol. Serving temperature is subjective but the range for most reds is 55-65 F. Do some experimentation to find your preferences. For big reds, many decide to go to the warmer end of the scale and, for lighter reds, a bit cooler if you like. You can read or listen to more information on wine service at home.

Merlot Isn’t Any Good

“Good” is always a matter of taste, but it’s hard to understand why Merlot has taken such a bad rap this past decade. Historically, Merlot has been viewed as a noble variety and it makes the most expensive wine of Bordeaux, Chateau Petrus.

It took a hard turn in the 90s. One possible explanation is that it suffered from over-popularity. Wine is a trendy business and when the demand for Merlot suddenly sky-rocketed, many wineries went into overdrive to meet the demand. Merlot is not a very forgiving variety, and those winemakers who cut corners sent some rather unappealing examples out onto the shelves. Another possible reason is that we think of it as just a blending variety. There may be a perception that it’s not good enough to be a stand-alone wine. There are countless wonderful examples of delicious Merlots from the Napa Valley and we’re very proud of our Goosecross Merlot. If you’ve been disappointed by Merlot, or all of your friends have told you that it’s an inferior variety, you might just give it another try. You can learn more about Merlot here.

Critics Have All the Answers

If the wine got a 96 from the Wine Spectator, surely it must be worth the $85.00 price tag, right? Just like optimum age, it’s subjective. In the course of researching wines for a staff tasting we discovered that a highly regarded, rather pricey Merlot got a 94 from Robert Parker and a 78 from the Wine Spectator.

Who do you trust? If you’ve found a publication that seems to be aligned with your taste, that’s the ticket. Otherwise, it’s just like reading a movie review. You may or may not agree.

So, if you can’t rely on critics, what are you supposed to do?

  • Take advantage of the growing number of retail shops that include a tasting bar.
  • Wine by the glass at restaurants is another great way to try something new without investing too much.
  • Find a good retailer and develop a relationship – give them feedback on the wine you take home. After awhile, they’ll have a sense of your likes and dislikes and be able to help you make selections that make you happy.
  • Get together with other friends who like wine and form a tasting group. It’s lots of fun and exposes you to lots more wines than you can taste on your own. You can read or listen to more information about hosting a tasting at home.

There are lots of other myths going around, so if there’s one you’ve been wondering about, just write to us and we’ll try to find the answer for you!

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