10 Wine Myths Demystified - dummies

By Ed McCarthy, Mary Ewing-Mulligan

You’ll probably recognize several of the myths mentioned here. They all represent common thinking — and common misinformation — about wine.

The Best Wines Are Varietal Wines

One advantage of varietal wines — wines that are named after a grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Merlot — is that you supposedly know what you’re getting. (Actually, for most American wines, only 75 percent of the wine has to come from the named variety, and for most other wines, only 85 percent — so you don’t know exactly what you’re getting. But anyway…). The presence of a grape variety name on the label, however, even a top-quality variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, tells you nothing about the quality of the wine.

Varietal wines range in quality from ordinary to excellent. Wines named in other ways (for their region of production or with a fantasy name) also range in quality from ordinary to excellent. Varietal wines in general are no better and no worse than other wines.

A More Expensive Wine Is a Wiser Choice

For wine, as for many other products, a high price often indicates high quality. Purchasing a high-priced wine shows others that you can afford “the very best” and presumably that you have good taste.

But high quality alone is not the best criterion for choosing a wine, for the following reasons:

  • Your taste is personal, and you may not like a wine that critics consider very high in quality.
  • Not all situations call for a very high quality wine.

We certainly can enjoy even a $10 to $12 wine in many circumstances. At large family gatherings, on picnics, at the beach, and so on, an expensive, top-quality wine can be out-of-place — too serious and important.

Likewise, the very finest wines are seldom the best choices in restaurants — considering typical restaurant prices. Instead, we look for the best value on the wine list (keeping in mind what we are eating) or we experiment with some moderately priced wine that we haven’t tried before. (There will always be some wines that you haven’t tried.)

Quality isn’t the only consideration in choosing a wine. Often, the best wine of all for your taste or for a certain situation will be inexpensive.

The Palest Rosé Wines Are the Best

This is a new myth that has emerged since rosé wines have become very popular. It might be based on the fact that rosé wines from southern France, such as those from the Provence region, are generally pale. These wines are riding high in sales and also have a great image as a chic choice among rosé wines. But actually, the color of a rosé wine tells you almost nothing about its quality or its taste.

Pale rosé wines generally come from red grapes that have less pigmentation in their skins, such as Grenache, Cinsault, Clairette, or Pinot Noir, and also they are made in a way to minimize color transfer from the grapes into the wine. Other red grape varieties can make rosé wines with deeper or different hues, a true pink rather than an orangey hue, for example. And all winemakers can control the amount of color (and flavor) transfer from the grapes into the wine. The options in making rosé wines are so many that the final wines represent a whole range of styles, including body, sweetness, or dryness levels, intensity of flavor, and specific aromas and flavors. The only way to know what’s best for you is experimentation.

One detail that you might want to notice in looking at a bottle of rosé wine is its alcohol level, because that number can sometimes be a guide to the dryness or sweetness of the wine. A low number such as 10 percent alcohol might indicate that some grape sugar was retained in the wine without being fermented, and that wine will taste sweeter.

A Screw-Cap Closure Indicates a Lower-Quality Wine

This is an outdated belief. True, screw-off caps are still the closure on large “jug” bottles of those old-fashioned, really inexpensive domestic wines, but that type of wine is a dying breed. Meanwhile, screw caps have reinvented themselves as the closure of choice on many bottles of fine wine, especially white wines, from all over the world.

Winemakers know that using a metal cap to close their bottles can eliminate the risk of wine spoilage from blighted corks. Research has also proven that screw-cap closures don’t prevent wines from aging and developing just as wines in cork-sealed bottles don’t. Today’s screw-cap closures are attractive, they are easy for wine drinkers to use, and they protect the wine from cork taint: all good reasons to embrace them.

Screw-cap closures are not universal, and they probably won’t be anytime soon. (Traditions die hard.) You will find screw-cap closures especially on wines from New Zealand and Australia but also wines from other non-European countries, on bottles of white wines (even high quality whites) from many other countries, and on inexpensive and mid-priced bottles of red wines. You won’t find screw caps on bottles of many red wines from classic European wine regions because, in some cases, the local regulations haven’t caught up with scientific progress. And of course many of the world’s most elite wine producers continue to favor the traditional closure, cork.

When you encounter a wine with a screw cap, know that you have a wine from a conscientious producer who wants to protect his wine from off-flavors that could derive from a cork.

Red Wines Are More Sophisticated than White Wines

We know: There’s something about red wine that just says “serious.” Maybe that’s because many people enjoy white wines when they start drinking wine and then with experience they progress to red wine. And good for them, if that’s what they enjoy. But we can assure you from personal experience that, after years of drinking more red wine than white, many serious wine lovers, including us, rediscover the unique virtues of white wines, such as their compatibility with light meals and their easier drinkability. And some white wines can be serious indeed!

A corollary of this myth is, “The darker the red wine the better.” Many red wines today are extremely deep in color, almost to the point of being black rather than red. An opaque appearance in a red wine suggests that the wine’s aromas and flavors are as concentrated as its color is, and for that reason, some people have begun to equate deep color with high quality.

While it’s true that some very great red wines have deep color, other great red wines do not. Wines made from lightly pigmented grape varieties such as Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Sangiovese, for example, will never be naturally opaque in color, and yet they can certainly be great.

Winemakers today have additives for artificially deepening the color of red wines, and therefore even cheap, everyday wines can be deep in color if the winemaker wants to make them that way. Don’t be fooled into thinking that dark equals high quality.

Whether you’re deciding between red wine versus white, or judging the appearance of a particular red wine, a dark red color is no indication of quality and no measure of your good taste. Drink what you like.

White Wine with Fish, Red with Meat

As guidelines go, this isn’t a bad one. But we said guideline, not rule. Anyone who slavishly adheres to this generalization deserves the boredom of eating and drinking exactly the same thing every day of his life!

Do you want a glass of white wine with your burger? Go ahead, order it. You’re the one who’s doing the eating and drinking, not your friend and not the server who’s taking your order.

Even if you’re a perfectionist who’s always looking for the ideal food and wine combination, you’ll find yourself wandering from the guideline. The best wine for a grilled salmon steak is probably red — like a Pinot Noir or a Bardolino — and not white at all. Veal and pork do equally well with red or white wines, depending on how the dish is prepared. And what can be better with hot dogs on the grill than a cold glass of rosé?

No one is going to arrest you if you have white wine with everything, or red wine with everything, or even Champagne with everything! There are no rules.

Number Ratings Don’t Lie

This one might be the silliest myth of all.

It’s natural to turn to critics for advice. We do it all the time when we’re trying to decide which movie to see, when we’re choosing a new restaurant to try, or when we want to know what someone else thinks of a particular book.

In most cases, we weigh the critics’ opinions against our own experience and tastes. Say a steakhouse just got three stars and a fabulous review from the dining critic. Do we rush to the telephone to make a reservation? Not if we don’t like red meat! When the movie critics give two thumbs up, do we automatically assume that we’ll like the movie — or do we listen to their commentary and decide whether the movie may be too violent, silly, or serious for us? You know the answer to that.

Yet many wine drinkers, when they hear that a wine just got more than 90 points, go out of their way to get that wine. The curiosity to try a wine that scores well is understandable. But the rigid belief that such a wine a) is necessarily a great wine, and b) is a wine you will like, is simply misguided.

The critics’ scores are nothing more than the critics’ professional opinion — and opinion, like taste, is always personal.

The Quality of a Wine Is Objectively Measurable

As wine critics, we constantly judge the quality of individual wines. Besides scribbling positive or negative comments about the wine’s concentration or finesse or whatever, we quantify the quality by giving the wine a score. Usually, we are pretty much in agreement with each other and our scores are fairly close, which reinforces the notion that we have properly pegged the quality of the wine. What we have actually pegged, however, is our individual and collective impression of the wine’s quality.

If human beings were machines, then maybe a person could taste a wine and ascribe a quality ranking to that wine with repeated and reproducible accuracy. As it is, however, the equipment we have to work with (our noses, mouths, and brains) is personal and varies in performance from one individual to the next. The experience of wine is always subjective and the quality statement given to a wine is therefore always subjective.

Everything about the wine-tasting experience influences our subjective impression of a wine’s taste. Weather, your mood, and the ambiance of the situation all affect your reaction to a wine, for example. Not only that: One bottle of a wine can be subtly different from another bottle of the same wine, and the same wine in a different glass can taste different. Not even the world’s greatest experts can objectively measure the quality of a wine.

Very Old Wines Are Good Wines

The idea of rare old bottles of wine being auctioned off for tens of thousands of dollars apiece, like fine art, is fascinating enough to capture anyone’s imagination. But valuable old bottles of wine are even rarer than valuable old coins because, unlike coins, wine is perishable.

The huge majority of the world’s wines don’t have what it takes to age for decades. Most wines are meant to be enjoyed in the first one to five years of their lives. Even those wines that have the potential to develop slowly over many years will achieve their potential only if they are properly stored.

The purpose of wine is to be enjoyed — usually, sooner rather than later.

Champagnes Don’t Age

We don’t know who started this myth; to the contrary, Champagne does age well! Depending on the particular year, Vintage Champagne can age especially well. We have enjoyed two outstanding 1928 Vintage Champagnes, Krug and Moët & Chandon’s Dom Pérignon, neither of which showed any sign of decline. The oldest Champagne that we’ve ever tasted, a 1900 Pol Roger, was also in fine shape.

But Champagne demands excellent storage. If kept in a cool, dark, humid place, many Champagnes can age for decades, especially in the great vintages. They lose some effervescence but take on a complexity of flavor somewhat similar to fine white Burgundy. Champagnes in magnum bottles (1.5 l) generally age better than those in regular size (750 ml) bottles.

If you want to try some very fine, reliable, older bottles of Vintage Champagne, look for either Krug or Salon in the 1964, 1969, 1973, or 1976 vintage. If stored well, they will be magnificent. Dom Pérignon is also reliable — the 1961 and 1969 DPs are legendary.

The following houses produce Champagnes known to age well:

  • Krug: All of their Champagnes are remarkably long lived.
  • Pol Roger: Especially Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill.
  • Moët & Chandon: Cuvée Dom Pérignon, ageless when well stored.
  • Louis Roederer: Cristal, Cristal Rosé, and Vintage Brut all age well.
  • Paul Bara: Special Club and Special Club Rosé.
  • Bollinger: All their Champagnes, especially the Grande Année.
  • Gosset: Grand Millésime and Célébris.
  • Salon: Remarkable Blanc de Blancs; needs at least 15 years of aging.
  • Veuve Clicquot: La Grande Dame and the Vintage Brut.
  • Taittinger: Their Blanc de Blancs (Comtes de Champagne).
  • Billecart-Salmon: The Vintage Blanc de Blancs.
  • Pommery: Cuvée Louise.
  • Laurent-Perrier: Cuvée Grand Siècle.
  • Philipponnat: Clos des Goisses.

Recent great, age-worthy vintages for Champagne are 2012, 2008, 2002, 1996, and 1988.