May 15, 2020
For something that is basically just a beverage—albeit far more delicious than most—an awful lot of folderol has grown up around the buying, service and consuming of wine. Indeed, wine drinking is fraught with opportunities to show oneself either a naïf or a show-off, usually both at the same moment. Too often it will cost you money. Here are ten myths that will save you embarrassment and even some cash.
1.Wine is a living thing. On the contrary, once its yeasts have died off after fermentation, it is a dead and decaying thing. If there’s anything still living in a wine bottle after fermentation ends—unwanted bacteria mostly— it’s likely is going to cause problems.
2. Red wines get better with age. If the age in question is the time the wine spent fermenting and aging in stainless steel or oak barrels before release, this adage makes sense. But unless it is a wine of considerable complexity and strong tannins, it’s not going to get much better once it’s released to the wine store shelves. Further aging of Grand Cru Burgundies and Bordeaux are requisite to allow them fully to mature, as are highly tannic California Cabernets, but even the experts within those regions can give only the vague-est of recommendations beyond, “Wait five years.”
3. You should expect very old vintages to have a somewhat musty smells and leathery flavor. While a connoisseur may declare a bottle of 1929 Mouton “sound”—which is like saying a classic car is “driveable”— the chances are that the bottle is way beyond its prime. And while a recommended “swirl of the glass” may blow off a little of the smell and bring some oxygen into the wine, it is more likely that “barnyard smell” (often described as “cat’s pee”) has simply deteriorated the wine through oxidation (also called maderization) that once begun is unstoppable. Having once actually tasted a 1929 Mouton, I was amazed that it was drinkable at all, but within ten minutes’ exposure to the air made it undrinkable.
4. Red wines should always be decanted to remove sediment. If a red wine has sediment, fine. If not, there’s no reason to decant. Most red wines upon release do not throw off sediment anyway; those aged five years or more may. Some enophiles contend that decanting brings oxygen into the wine, which is as easily accomplished by just pouring the wine into a glass.
5. When tasting a wine, you should suck in air and swirl the wine several times in your mouth to bring out the wine’s qualities or defects. If you’re a professional wine taster—who may go through 50 wines at a time and spits the wines out—this can be helpful. But at a dinner table? Uh-uh. You’ll look ridiculous and embarrass your friends. Just take a sip and make a determination.
6. One should always sniff the cork. Why? Ninety times out of a hundred it will reveal nothing, unless the cork is so visibly rotted that you wouldn’t want to sniff it. The purpose of presenting the cork is a holdover from days when an inferior wine was deliberately and unscrupulously mis-labeled as a better one—a scam exposed by simply looking at the cork to see if it was imprinted with the original, real provenance of the wine.
7. A screwtop closure indicates an inferior wine. The debate over how often corks cause a wine to taste “corked”—a smell and taste caused by a chemical called TCA that may as easily come from a wine cask or even moldy cardboard boxes in a winery—continues year after year and one cork producers are constantly trying to remedy. Arguments in favor of using a cork stopper run from cork’s allowing a small amount of oxygen to enter and inspirit the wine, which is not a proven virtue, to silly notions that popping a cork is ineffably romantic. But the secret is, just about every winemaker I’ve ever spoken to, in the U.S., Europe and the rest of the world, would prefer to switch to a screwtop or glass closure rather than risk a five- to ten percent failure that corks may cause.
8. Expensive wines are often allocated because of their scarcity. This is of course true if you are speaking of Grand Cru Burgundies, Bordeaux and some Northern Italian wines that are by law delimited to be made only within a certain acreage and the number of bottles that go to market. In a vintage with a small crop, such wines will be very scarce; in a large crop the estate may only produce the maximum amount of cases allowed, with the rest sold under second labels. (There is, as you’d imagine, a grey market for rare wines whose provenance is often in doubt.)
No such legal restrictions are made for California wines, so that a huge crop—often the case in sunny California—for a so-called “trophy wine” estate with high numerical ratings in the wine media males an oversupply of wine a liability. As a result, they may sell off their 98-point wine to a middle-man for sale under a different label at greatly reduced prices. In those years with a small crop, such prestigious wines are often allocated to subscribers, wine shops and restaurants—perhaps a single case or even one or two bottles—thereby keeping the wines’ prices artificially high. The key, then, is to find out what kind of supply there was in a particular vintage. In a year with a bumper crop, allocations should be very suspect.
Cameron Hughes, CEO of the giant wine distributor under his name, told me that after several very bountiful vintages from 2012 to 2019, “The state is drowning in wine. For wineries that pride themselves on small production and selling only by allocation, it’s a little embarrassing to find their warehouses bulging with thousands of gallons of wine. Still, they don’t want to see their wines selling in Costco because of the perception of lower quality.”
9. Alcohol levels are wholly a result of climate and terroir. For millennia this was certainly the case, and even today a process called chaptalization is used in certain regions of France by which hearty, high alcohol wines from southern Europe and northern Africa are added to boost the alcohol levels. Other wines like Port and Marsala are fortified by adding brandy. But in Europe the tradition has been to let nature determine the percentage of alcohol in a wine; indeed, the legal definition of a table wine stops at 14%. Despite this, many wineries, especially in California, South America, Australia and New Zealand, bottle wines well above that, at 14.5%, 15% or higher, without fortification. Many insist is it simply a matter of having more sun, more heat and more climate change, which causes the sugar levels to rise and in turn the sugar ferments into more alcohol.
But many modern wineries trying to win media awards for big, brawny bodied bottling, try to increase alcohol in the vineyard and labs by techniques such as keeping grapes on the vines to become over ripe in order to increase the sugars increase and concentrate, According to the Oxford Companion to Wine, “The resulting wines tend to be high in alcohol without necessarily being accompanied by ripe fruit aromas and phenolics [which are chemical compounds that add pigment, acid and flavors].”
10. You should always send back a wine you don’t like. No, you should only send back a wine that has gone bad, either by being oxidized or corked. Just because you don’t care for the taste of the wine is no reason to ask for it to be taken off your bill. The exception is when a wine steward has really pushed a wine on you that you’re unfamiliar with and you find the wine distasteful. Then, back it goes.