Popular Wine Myths Debunked – Part 1
In the 4.0 Cellars tasting room, one often hears comments about wine from customers that tend to fall into the categories of myths, misconceptions, and sometimes just plain quackery. Because wine can be a technically challenging topic, and sometimes downright confusing, a recent article in WineMaker magazine prompted me to address some of these myths. This is Part 1. Part 2 will follow.
The concept of “natural” wines is ill-defined and can be the source of misunderstanding. The belief that natural wines are purer and more healthy leads many to have the notion that adding anything to wine is “bad.” Shouldn’t a winemaker just allow grape juice to naturally ferment and then bottle the result without resorting to any of the normal wine chemistry protocols? Well, first of all, please recognize that wine contains hundreds, if not a thousand or so, chemicals that came from the grapes themselves. And, during fermentation of grape sugars into alcohol, many more chemical compounds are created. So, chemicals are not a bad thing!
Using native yeasts to ferment wine sugars, and making wine with minimal processing as well as no additives may sound intriguing, but such wines are basically unstable and must be consumed early. They do not travel well and have typically very short shelf or storage life. Without the appropriate additives and processing to stabilize a wine, a very high risk of spoilage exists. So, if aging wines for more than six months after bottling is important, so are those additives important. Today’s winemakers have at their disposal a valuable set of additives that not only improve spoilage stability, but enhance flavors, aromas, appearance, texture, and other sensory attributes.
The concept that filtering wines removes valuable aroma, flavor, and color components is often an issue with consumers. Some great wines can be made without filtration, but a lot of time and work is required in the winery to allow wines to settle and then be racked clear of sediment in order to be clean and clear when bottled. Stabilizing wines with sulfite additives is typically required in order to stop any spoilage during the time required to clear an unfiltered wine. Filtering can speed up the process to get wine to the bottling stage and will certainly help to eliminate problematic components in wine, such as spoilage bacteria, leftover yeast, sugars that may lead to unwanted fermentation after bottling, and colloidal matter and particulates that may form cloudiness in the bottled wine. Most aroma and flavor compounds are smaller molecules not typically trapped by filtering, and thus are not significantly affected by the filtration process.
Another myth that often surfaces in the tasting room is that the “legs” or “tears” created on the sides of a wineglass after swirling the wine relates to the quality of a wine. The more legs, the better the quality, right? Wrong! These legs or tears are only associated with the alcohol (ethanol), and sugars is present, in a wine. Alcohol has a difference in surface tension than the water in wine, and, coupled with its greater rate of evaporation, leads to the formation of legs on the glass. While it is tempting to think that legs in a wine relate to quality, full-body character, or even richer texture, legs primarily to the alcohol in the wine.
The widely held belief that wines get better with age is a particularly damaging myth. Most wines are produced to be consumed young, very young, from a few days to a few months from date of bottling. These wines, representing about 95% of all produced, are ready to drink and already have the maximum aroma and flavor characteristics that the winemaker intended. A smaller portion of wines, maybe 4.0-4.5%, can improve in aroma and flavor with limited aging, let’s say 6 months to 2-3 years. Those wines that can develop over years of aging (probably only 0.5%, or one bottle in 200) depend on complex chemistry that the winemaker carefully managed in order to provide the appropriate amount of tannins, alcohol, acidity, concentration of color compounds, etc. Many of the compounds important to aging result from extended skin contact in the production of red wines. White wines are typically made without skin contact, and thus do not normally age as well as red wines.
For wines to age for extended periods, other factors are involved, such as adding the appropriate amount of sulfite at bottling to protect against spoilage, reducing the amount of oxygen (air) in the bottle, and making sure the closure (cork, screwcap, or other) is secure. Also, the appropriate conditions (dark, 55-60 degrees F) in a cellar or wine cabinet are critical in order to properly age wines for an extended period of time.
As Daniel Pambianchi states, “All wines evolve through three phases: development, maturity and decline. Following a settling-down period after bottling, wine will seem muted at first, but then develop new aromas and flavors. They plateau at their peak, or maturity, and remain essentially unchanged for months, years, and possibly decades in the best wines or Port and sweet wines. Then they start their decline phase where those beautiful aromas and flavors disappear and perhaps some off-aromas develop, and the color progressively evolves to a more pronounced brown. The rates of development and decline and the stay at maturity depend on the factors just discussed.”
If you hold any of these wine myths, spend some time researching on the internet. There is a lot of info available that can help you better understand this wonderful world of wine.
This Carl’s Corner was inspired by the following reference: https://winemakermag.com/technique/top-winemaking-myths by Daniel Pambianchi