Wine myths debunked

I was invited to one of those awkward dinners over the festive period where I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Will they be serving leftovers from the day before or would they have been preparing for days in advance? Would I be seated next to one of those dull, newly-turned-vegan, obnoxious people who couldn’t hold conversation without mentioning the fact that they watched ‘The Game-Changers’?  But I digress, my worry stemmed from the bottle of wine to bring with me. It’s not merely about the money, but more about what the host would appreciate. Should I play safe with a decent looking Bordeaux or Chablis, or would the host delight with a top-notch Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River, albeit with a screw cap closure?    

I opted for the riskier screw cap option. The conversation quickly turned to whether the wine-closure has anything do with the quality of the wine. More than half the table admitted to believing screw cap meant inferior quality.  

I thought there so many myths that need to be debunked.

Screw cap equals low-quality wine

Maybe it is the romanticism of the cork, or the sensual courting of a sommelier opening an old bottle of wine using careful manoeuvres to keep the cork intact that we absolutely love, and I do somewhat understand the reasoning behind this myth. Yes, I am a fan of the cork and true that opening a screw cap lacks a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’, but I simply will not admit that the screw cap equals low-quality wine.

Screw caps have become mainstream in New World wine-producing regions such as Australia and New Zealand, and in fact, some of their very best wine producers are big fans of this type of closure. The screw cap closure does a better job at locking out oxygen, is cheaper to produce, as such gives you more bang for your buck, and the possibility of typical closure-related faults such as cork taint or oxidization are greatly reduced. In short, the risks are way less.

There is, however, a school of thought that promote the use of corks because they allow tiny bits of oxygen into the bottle allowing the wine to evolve at an expected rate, but that’s another argument altogether.      

All Champagne should aged

Non-vintage Champagne is usually made to be drunk immediately. I normally suggest drinking this type of Champagne within 3 to 4 years of purchase. This does not mean that those bottles of Moët et Chandon gathering dust at the back of your kitchen cupboard should be thrown away, but for crying out loud, open them this weekend.

Vintage Champagne, on the other hand, will benefit from aging for several years, sometimes even up to 20 years. You can easily tell vintage Champagne from non-vintage Champagne because the date of disgorgement will be indicated on the bottle. If no date is indicated, It’s the perfect excuse to open the bottle for your next celebration, and that means every Sunday is a cause for celebration, right?  

Sparkling wine should be served in flutes

‘Would you mind pouring the Champagne into a wine glass please? That’s the cue for my wife to roll her eyes and call me a ‘wine-snob’. I’m sorry darling, I will stand by my opinion that it just tastes better!

Even though it is customary to drink sparkling wines from a flute, Champagne was originally drunk from a coupe said to have been modelled on Marie-Antoinette’s breasts, in order to allow the bubbles to escape quickly and thus soften the wine. By the mid 1950’s to the 1970’s drinking habits changed, and the flute came to fruition to release the bubbles slower and avoid ‘fizzling’ out too quickly. Some historians say that the flute was actually invented out of necessity to allow aristocrats to enjoy their Champagne without spilling over each other during stand-up functions at the theatre.

Unfortunately, both the flute and coupe don’t do much for the actual wine’s aromas. The aromas in a coupe, just like the bubbles, is immediately lost, whereas in a flute the aromas are sadly muted. Many professional sommeliers use a specific Champagne glass that is tulip in shape with a smaller opening at the top, but when these specific glasses are not available any good wine glass will suffice.

Of course, I still accept the beautiful cut-crystal Champagne flutes my mother-in-law so passionately offers me on New Year’s Day, and I do love the festive feel of a flute, but I inherently seem to ‘accidently’ pour the Champagne into a wine glass when nobody is looking.

Only white wine pairs with fish and red wine pairs with meat

There is definitely some truth in this myth, but it is the oversimplification of the reasoning behind it that is mistaken. The strategies behind wine pairing include matching or contrasting flavours, weights and textures, and to balance the intensity of both the dish and the wine.  

Since generally white wine is lighter and fresher, it is often the better choice with light fish dishes, as is the texture and body of a Californian Cabernet better suited to a flame-grilled rib-eye steak. However, lighter red wine grapes such as Pinot Noirs and Gamays can be better suited to rich fish dishes and darker meats such as Salmon and Tuna, and I often prefer a creamed Chicken dish with a bold chardonnay to most red wines.  

This old adage of ‘white with fish and red with meat’ has been replaced with the more modern mantra of “drink what you like, eat what you like, and pair them however you like’.

My personal take on all this is probably somewhere in the middle. I believe that the overly simplistic saying is useful to some extent owing to ease of remembering and often accurate result, however the beauty and joy of wine is all about experimenting with different tastes, flavours and textures through different pairings, and had I not adopted this mantra, I’d have missed out on some fabulous surprises along the years.

Sulphites cause hangovers

I’m already hyperventilating. I will be as clear as I possibly can - all wine has sulphites (or sulfites). Sulphites are a by-product of fermentation, and therefore an integral part of the whole process. As matter of fact, sulphites are what protect and preserve, the wine allowing it to age. Without sulphites, you’d be drinking some pretty funky and awful stuff. Though most winemakers add tiny amounts of sulphites to their wine, it adds up to no more sulphites than a can of tuna (or french fries, soda & dried fruit)

That being said, one percent of the global population are sulphite-sensitive (and 5% of asthmas sufferers), and if you happen to be one of those unlucky ones, I would suggest to try out a few organic wines which do not have any added sulphites, although they would still have small amounts, and test the outcome, but I’m sceptical. A few people do have actual sulphite allergies, but they are mostly asthmatics, and if you had this allergy, you'd almost certainly know about it by now, but don't blame sulphites for any headaches or hangovers. Sulphite reactions are like a bad asthma attack, or they might result in hives, not headaches or hangovers.

Now that the sulphites issue is cleared, tannins can in fact cause a headache. I have a couple of friends who avoid red wine but have no issues with white for this very reason. I tend to suggest opting for the lighter reds or avoiding them completely if you suffer.

Wine always gets better as it ages

Strangely enough this is still quite a misconception. In short, most wines do not improve with age, but wine being such a complex subject it is not as straightforward as one would wish. Basically, different wines age differently - some age gracefully for 10-15 years, others improve for the first 2-3 years and then plateau, then there’s those wines that simply do not improve with age and are better to drink immediately.  

Wine is made up of complex phenolics, acids, flavours and aromas which break down and reconnect over time, thus creating new structure, aromas and flavours over time.  If a strong structure is there, ‘primary’ fruit flavour will fade into secondary and tertiary flavours. If the right components are present, the wine will evolve into more complex flavours. However, it is only when there is the perfect balance of alcohol, sugars, proteins and structure that wine will actually improve with age. This is the reason why only a small quantity of perfectly made and often premium wines can improve or last longer in the bottle.

The fact that premium wines increase in value over the years often gives the perception that all wine improves with age, when in fact the wines that do increase in value are often super-premium wines with fantastic structure and made with the intention to age. There is also the added reality that over time these wines become scarcer and harder to source, therefore pushing prices up further.  

Riesling is a sweet wine

When I first got into the world of wine, one of the first mistakes I made was to assume Riesling is always sweet. At the time I was corrected by my eventual lecturer who said, ‘Rieslings are often fruity, but not necessarily sweet’.  

Traditionally Rieslings are on the sweeter end of the scale, however nowadays most Riesling producers are making a variety of top notch dry, lean and mineral Rieslings which are fantastic food-friendly wines. Unfortunately, back in the 80’s and 90’s the only available Riesling was none other than that sickly, sweet juice with too little acidity that was poured from that elongated blue bottle that still sends shivers down my spine.  It wasn’t the fact that the wine was sweet that made it bad, but simply that the wine itself was… well, horrible.

Thankfully, Riesling wine has come a long way and Germany, originally notorious for the sweeter wines, now produce a vast array of Rieslings in varying degrees of sweetness, from lean and bone dry to rich and honeyed styles.  Riesling is one of those grapes, like Pinot Gris or Gewürztraminer that is equally enjoyable in a dry or sweet style. Similarly, France, and in particular Alsace, has been producing some beautiful, lean and refreshing Rieslings, as well as ‘late harvest’ and ‘botrytized’ sweet wines that pair wonderfully with salty cheeses and fruit-based desserts.

New World areas including Australia and New Zealand have become synonymous with single varietals such as Riesling, boasting floral, fruity and aromatic wine which are wonderful paired with food. Speaking about food, I would probably add that a dry, mineral and fruit-forward Riesling is often my go-to white wine when I expect to have a variety of flavours thrown at my palate – the wine is refreshing, cool and flexible but not necessarily sweet.