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Common wine myths

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WINE CAN be a baffling product. This is also the reason why wine enthusiasts are fascinated no end by the multitude of flavors, all coming from just one specific fruit — the grape. There are however many myths that need to be corrected before anyone can go to the next level in terms of fully understanding wine. I have summarized below the most common myths and misconceptions I encountered in my almost 20 years of selling, teaching, writing, and marketing wine.

wine1. Wine is a healthy drink. While this belief contributed to the huge renaissance of wines, in particular red wines in the late 1990s (the French Paradox syndrome), this is highly deceiving. I know — I’m in the wine trade, and a health endorsement can be very beneficial, but it is too general, and abuse of wine, like other alcoholic beverages, has worst consequences. The healthy aspect of wines comes from the antioxidant and anti-clotting properties of their flavanoids that fight cardiovascular diseases. Wine is more a preventive than a cure. On the other hand, too much alcohol intake will lead to cirrhosis of the liver and eventually liver cancer which are both a lot more harmful. So, wine, red or white, has to be taken in moderation, two to three glasses per meal is acceptable. That is why sharing a bottle (normally 750 ml) with a friend or loved one is always a great idea. Each person can have maximum three glasses, well within the moderation rate. If you have two major meals a day (lunch and dinner) that can mean six glasses of wine a day or roughly one full bottle in a spaced out span of seven to eight hours. Not shabby at all if you do this.

2. The older the wine, the better. How often do we hear this? A lot of people seem to believe in the myth that the older the red wine, the better it gets. While this is the case for most premium red wines, it is definitely a huge fallacy. A light-bodied red wine, meant for early drinking, will die naturally when cellared passed its prime. And think about this, if the wine you are drinking is bad now, adding a few more years of aging will not miraculously transform it to a better wine — we are not that lucky. And even premium wines, like those grand cru Bordeaux wines, are not guaranteed for long-term keeping. It depends on the vintage and basically the viscosity and body of the wine. Stronger, higher tannin wines need time to mellow down before achieving their optimal flavor and taste profile. Only this type of wine, the full-bodied, high-tannin and well-oaked ones are worth cellaring, but there is no guarantee that it becomes good. Other good long haul-keeping reds aside from Bordeaux include Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Barossa Shiraz, Tuscany’s Brunello di Montalcino, Piedmont’s Borolo and Barbaresco, Spain’s Toro region, Burgundy’s Cotes de Nuits and Northern Rhone reds. But please — do not age your generic Californian, vin de pay, vino de mesa and other cheaper reds, as aging them will make them even more unbearable and undrinkable. Sangria may be only drinkable option for these old cheap reds, or perhaps the sewage.

3. White wine does not age. This is another sweeping generalization. I know all of us at one time or another experienced bad white wines because we kept them too long before drinking. We have seen white wines that turned gold and amber in color, and lost their aromatic qualities. While we attribute it to the lack of longevity of the whites, the usual culprit is poor storage. White wines are more sensitive to UV rays due to lightly colored or even transparent bottles. Also, whites contain less tannin and sometimes less alcohol, both factors that preserve wines longer. Most white wines that do not last beyond three years are usually light bodied with little acidity. This is in contrast to the fuller whites of Bordeaux, particularly the Sauternes and Barsac region, German Qualitatswein mit Pradikat (translated as superior quality wine or QmP–classification) made from riesling, and even the Coteaux du Layon wines of Loire made from chenin blanc. It is no coincidence that all these above mentioned whites are on the sweeter, higher residual sugar side. Only Chardonnay seems like a safe bet among the longer keeping dry whites, and I would go with the Cote de Beaune Burgundy trio of Meursault, Puligny Montrachet, and Chassagne Montrachet wines.

4. Screw cap wines are cheaper and of poorer quality. It will probably take more than a lifetime (or maybe NEVER) before a Screaming Eagle or Chateau Lafite will be closed by a screw cap instead of natural cork — the former, a cult wine from Napa, being more a possibility than the latter French first growth grand cru Bordeaux wine. The reason for this is mostly image and aesthetics. The New World wines have embraced this closure concept as evidenced by the surfacing “screw-capped” wines from Australia, California, New Zealand, and even South America. And this closure is not limited to cheap wines as clearly seen in several higher valued and premium region-specific New World wines. The modern screw cap was actually started by a brand called Stelvin, created by the French — a far more superior screw cap that those used in cheap wine bottles in the past. The Stelvin closure not only substitutes for the dwindling availability of cork oak trees, but it can eradicate the dreaded TCA (or Trichoroanisole) or “cork taint” that still affects over 2% of the world’s wines that use cork. TCA is a compound that surfaces when chlorine used in cleaning and bleaching interacts with molds inherent in the cork. This can either happen in the cork producer’s side because chlorine solution is used to clean the bark of the cork oak, or at the winery. Vulnerability to TCA can be found in many areas of a winery’s bottling facility, from drains and tanks to the barrels. One of the largest wine markets in the world, the United Kingdom, is extremely partial to Stelvin closures due to their bad experience with corked wines and TCA. This has contributed to the popularity of screw cap wines of late. So, the bottom line is a screw cap is a mere closure and has nothing to do with the quality of the wine. On the other hand, not all screw caps are Stelvins or Guala Closures (another huge and trusted screw cap brand) — the ones used on cheaper generic wines you see at P200/bottle retail price, well, they are still what they are, cheap and of poor quality.

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5. Red wine served at room temperature means serving at 16°C. We see people chilling and icing down red wines because they wanted their wine served at room temperature — but not just any room temperature, more like that in Europe in particular, around 14-18°C, much lower temperatures than here in tropical Philippines and most of Asia. The problem is that over-chilled red wine loses its aromatic components, and the tannins also become more pronounced when served here in our innately warm weather. The concept is really more about acclimatization and physiological adaptation. Room temperature is first and foremost relative. What is room temperature in Paris is really quite cold in Manila. Our body notices — the wine will feel and taste too cold. So it is not going to do justice to the red wine. To make it right, you may opt to chill your red wine to bring down the temperature slightly, but after 10-15 minutes of chilling, leave the wine out on the table and let the wine acclimatize to the prevailing room temperature. To me, room temperature should mean a comfortable “air-conditioned” 21-24°C. At this temperature, the red wine will drink beautifully. Of course, if you are in Paris and it is 16°C there, your body can adapt and the same red wine will show its same aromas as if it was served in Manila at 21°C.

The above are just five of the common myths I come across very often, but there are many more which I plan to tackle in future columns. I also welcome the contribution of wine myths and misconceptions from my readers. Please write to me and I will feature them in my second edition of this topic.

The author has been a member of the Federation Internationale des Journalists et Ecrivains du Vin et des Spiritueux or FIJEV since 2010. For comments, inquiries, wine event coverage, and other wine-related concerns, e-mail the author at prote-geinc@yahoo.com. He is also on Twitter at twitter.com/sherwinlao.

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