Myths about wine don’t just take on a life of their own, they collect disciples. Sommeliers, producers, drinkers and, yup, even wine writers cling to notions that simply ain’t true, not surprising in a field that changes as fast as a lunch-hour shopper at Loehmann’s. Here’s a short guide to wine misinformation and lies that just won’t die. Now go win some bets.
Age: A necessity back when young wine had the softness of Brillo and the finish of Drano. Nowadays, most wine comes ready to drink and doesn’t get any better. A few can still go the distance, but they’re not for everyone. The bottle giveth complexity, but it taketh away fruit. As winemaker Andre Tchelistcheff put it, “Appreciating old wine is like making love to a very old lady. It is possible. It can even be enjoyable. But it requires a bit of imagination.”
Big: We Americans like our wine purple as ink, reeking of oak and concentrated as a Russian chess champion. Amps turned up, we’re easily underwhelmed by the un-plugged elegance of Old World wine. Turn that sucker down to discover a whole new type of dinner music.
Blend: You put milk in your coffee, sugar in your tea, but you wouldn’t dream of doctoring wine. Why not? It’s fun to experiment! Add a drop of lemon juice, or a pinch of sugar. Pour a little Merlot in your Cab. You’ll learn a lot, and I promise the winemaker isn’t looking.
Box: Chardonnay-flavored apple juice trashed its reputation, but actually a very useful container and perfectly respectable to Brits and Aussies. Light and stackable, its vacuum-bag/faucet combo keeps wine fresh for weeks after tapping. Good wines, cubed, should be available this year. Stay tuned.
Breathing: Opened bottles do as much of this as you would in the trunk of a Buick. If your wine wants air - and many do - pour it into a glass, pitcher or decanter. In emergency situations consider mouth-to-mouth.
Burgundy: The jug years left us thinking it was purple and…hearty, when, in fact, real Burgundy is none other than the Pinot Noir grape; more brains than brawn, and more brown than purple. What does that leave for your hearty beef stew? Zinfandel! It’s the new Burgundy.
Cans: First a box, and now - a six-pack? You want pommes frîtes with that? Actually, nothing stands between cans and the wine market but their image. Take a four-pack of Aussie Wine’s surprisingly decent Shiraz on your next picnic and you can skip the attitude as well as the corkscrew.
Chianti Classico: Sounds like a classier level of Chianti, but actually a sub-region of Chianti, the way that bald spot is a sub-region of your head, except in this case it’s considered prime real estate.
Clarity: Save it for diamonds. Clear means filtered; thus safe from spoilage. The pros and cons of pasteurized cheese apply here: filtering removes unwanted microbes and yeast, but also flavors. Good wine can range from brilliant to downright hazy these days, the only drawback to the latter being you can’t magnify the menu through your Muscat when you forget your reading glasses.
Cork: State-of-the-art stopper for 250 years, unfortunately also a spongy condo for mold and bacteria, shot through with Swiss-cheesy holes, cork has now been replaced with more reliable, hygienic closures. At least in the case of poison, medicine and food. Wine, however, still clings to these pieces of tree-bark – chiefly because they go “pop!”
Expensive: What great wine is, right? An orangutan can order good $500 wine. OK, an orangutan with plastic and a decent French accent. But plenty of cheaper wines are swell, too. Land, labor and marketing costs are a few of the factors that goose up price but not flavor. Complexity costs, but if you’d rather quaff than analyze, it’s a waste of dough. The best wine is the star in your price bracket - whether that’s $6, $16 or $50.
Fattening: Diet-guru/sadists notwithstanding, there’s no evidence that wine makes you fat and plenty to the contrary. Zero fat, zero carbohydrates (when sugar turns to alcohol the carbs are lost), takes half a bottle to equal the calories in one Snicker’s bar. In a recent study, obese patients, particularly women, who added wine to their diet they lost more weight than a control group. Does it replace nutrition? Moderate drinkers get about 6% of their energy from wine which means they derive 94% from other sources. Does it weaken dieters’ resolve? You might argue that facing steamed-chicken and broccoli every night would be unbearable without it.
German: No longer limited to sweet, sweeter and Blue Nun-of-the-above, delicious German Riesling is one of the world’s great bargains. Often bone-dry, it’s fabulous with food and low in alcohol so you get to drink more. If only the bottle would fit in your fridge.
Headache: Quit blaming sulfites. Cheese, hot dogs and dried fruit have lots more of them. The real culprit is still on the loose, but probably lurks in the skins, a much bigger factor in red wine than white. If Euro-wines are kinder on your skull, it’s probably due to the thinner-skinned grapes their climates produce.
Kabinett: Not a guarantee of dryness, only of grape-sugar level at harvest, like you care. Trocken means dry, but you can’t always trust it. Either get to know your German regions, or ask someone who’s tasted the wine. I said it was out there, I didn’t say it was easy.
Kosher: Kiddush Kool-Aid no longer, today’s kosher wine is not your father’s Manichewitz (unless he paid for it). Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot – Kosher now runs the flavor and quality gamut. Why is this wine different from all other wines? It’s made only from Sunday through Friday on special equipment with a guy in a beanie supervising.
Legs: These “tears” on the side of the glass are thick and slow when wine is high in alcohol or sugar, and thin and fast if not. But, unlike Queen Ann chairs and sumo wrestlers, wine can never have “nice legs.”
Magnets: Whether embedded in a coaster, clipped around the bottle’s neck or plugged in with lights zapping, magnets neither align molecules, re-arrange tannins, restructure acids nor do anything else to instantly age or mellow wine. If you experiment with their effects long enough, however, you might find yourself horizontally aligned with Earth’s magnetic field.
Meritage: Faux-French impresses some people but not the Meritage Association. Members use the term to ID their Bordeaux blend – outsiders with different blends may not. When a sommelier asks if you’d like the “merit- tahj,” why not demonstrate how the marriage of “merit” and “heritage” should be pronounced?
Organic: Still contains sulfites, a natural part of every wine. Organic winemaking is a tricky proposal, with unstable, sometimes weird results. Organic grape farming, however, is both hip and respectable and produces some of the world’s great wines.
Punt: The dent in the bottom of the bottle does not correlate with quality. It does, however, cut into wine-space, requiring a bigger bottle, so it looks like you’re getting more. Perhaps companies who pull this off are smart enough to make better wine, too.
Red: The required color for IMPORTANT wine, according to certain connoisseurs, who want no truck with Alsatian Riesling, white Burgundy, Hungarian Tokaj, German Eiswein and a rainbow of other goodies. It’s their loss and leaves more wine for the rest of us.
Reserve: In some countries, a regulated statement about how long wine has been aged, barreled, or artfully strewn with cobwebs. In America, carries the legal punch of “Farm-Fresh” or “Going-out-of-Business!!!” Some producers save it for their best batches while others slap it on their cheapest junk to give it an aura of class.
Room Temperature: Right idea, wrong room, unless your commute home involves spelunking. Flavors go flat and alcohol burns if red wine is served much over 65F, the ambient temperature of a damp chateau. In most states they will not shoot you if you ask for an ice bucket.
Rosé: Not just for girls and metrosexuals. Good rosé is bone-dry and wonderful on a hot day. If your inner Cro-Magnon still cringes at the color, think of it as salmon or copper. Red with its shirt off. Beer without the belly.
Screwcap: Ripple’s Revenge will be the seal of the future, dooming corks to the dustbins of history and the cellars of gamblers. Do not be alarmed at the unarmed sommelier. Shudder only at the prospect of buying wine for long-term aging in any other sort of top.
Silver spoon: Hung in the neck of an opened Champagne bottle, it does not preserve fizz. A stopper helps, but bubbles hold up remarkably well for a day or two in the fridge, even unsealed. At least in theory. To date, no one has ever succeeded in completing an experiment which requires not finishing a bottle of Champagne.
Stains: When Merlot spills, forget the salt and white wine, both failures in recent tests to remove red wine from silk, cotton, nylon and wool. Hydrogen peroxide mixed with liquid dish soap was a winner, as was a product called Wine Away, developed to get blood off of surgeon’s gowns, a plus when the owner of the carpet sees what you’ve done.
Storage: Scrolly, wrought-iron holders notwithstanding, countertops are a lousy place to keep wine. Ditto those built-in racks over stove and fridge, so beloved by kitchen designers. When you put away wine, think damp, cool, quiet, dark, like the mother-in-law apartment you’d build if your spouse’s mom were Dracula. Oh wait, she is.
Sulfites: Present in all wine, but only America requires a warning on the label. Nature’s preservatives, they occur naturally in all wine, but sometimes - OK, often - need a little boost. Only adverse effect: the resulting better wine is a drain on the beer industry.
Sweet: Not just for beginners, even though most people start with sweet, pink, fizz (which, incidentally, describes virtually all wine up until the last 200 years, and is still the preferred flavor profile for most of mankind). World-class wines from off-dry to “bellybutton” super-stickies prove that sophisticated and yummy are not mutually exclusive.
Syrah, Petite Sirah, Shiraz: Which one doesn’t belong? One and three are French and Aussie names for the same grape. Petite Sirah is whole ‘nother beast, a stealth grape that uses its sound-alike name to glom glory from the other two. Once just a blender, it’s now featured solo, but still up to its deceptive tricks: one taste will tell you it’s anything BUT petite.
Tongue Map: Vee haf vays to make you taste. The familiar diagram showing sweet receptors at the tip, bitter in back and so on is a mistranslation of an early-1900s German thesis, now disproven. Taste buds are multi-taskers, varying from person to person and sprawling, most un-Germanically, past your tongue into your throat and even the roof of your mouth.
Tastevin: The ashtray-on-a-chain that elevates sommeliers above mere mortals long outlived any practical purpose. The days when merchants needed its silver facets to reflect scant, flickering, candlelight into the wine they were buying are over. So if your som uses his to taste, you have my permission to snicker.
Varietal: Adjective, often referring to wine made from and named for a single grape. Thus a bottle labeled “Chardonnay” is described as varietal but the grape it’s made from is a variety. (Note: for betting purposes only. Do not deploy in social settings unless you’re already so annoying you have no friends left to alienate.)
Vinho Verde: Red and white and green all over. Called green (verde) because it’s picked young, this slightly spritzy wine comes both red and white. Since most of the red is polished off at home, only white is exported, leading people to think that the green in its name refers to white. Or something.
Zinfandel: You probably already knew that this red grape saved its skin by making white wine that was really pink. You may also know that, considered America’s only serious wine grape, it’s actually Croatian and closely related to Italy’s Primitivo. But I couldn’t find another Z to end this encyclopedia, except for Zellenberg, a tiny town in Alsace where the only myth is that you won’t care that the hotel room is actually smaller than the bed they cram in there but then in the end the view was so gorgeous that I didn’t.
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