A huge part of the
snobbery and intimidation that prevents wine from gaining a larger
audience is Balderdash, Bunk, Hokum, Hype, and Twaddle. Some of the
most popular "wine knowledge" is based on the dogmatic perpetuation
of romantic myths rather than the understanding of scientific facts.
The topics of "old" wine, wine "legs", and wine "breathing" often
pop up in conversation, mostly as mimicry or rumor spreading without
any real understanding.
My advice here is directed to the average consumer, that sometime-wine-drinker whose contact with wine is mostly on special occasions and holidays. As confident as I
am in attacking some of these widely-held tenets, I am more confident
that parts of this article will generate controversy. Those who have
rigidly cherished their long-time beliefs in hearsay wine phenomena
(and sinfully spread and perpetuated these rumors) without once questioning
their basis will probably refuse to be swayed. They may even send
me hate mail: bring it on!1
(September 27, 2004): My thanks to readers who have e-mailed various
suggestions and/or provided information contributing to this article,
including:Archie Hood and Ariel Paulsen. - JL
MYTH: Old wine
tastes better than new wine.
IMPLICATION: The older any wine is, the better it tastes,
ORIGIN: Ancient Roman and Greek texts praise aged wine as superior
to newly fermented. In the New Testament of the Bible, Luke says,
"No man..., having drunk old wine, straightaway desireth new; for
he saith, The old is better."
all wines change with age, very few wines noticeably improve beyond
a few months and wine maturity does have its limits. Beside the obvious requirement of personal preference for bouquet and aged smells over aroma and fruity ones, three interdependent factors determine whether or not aging
will increase enjoyment of a wine. First, the particular wine must
have the intrinsic chemistry capable of aging/improving. Second, the
storage conditions must be constant and correct: temperate, humid,
dark and solid. Third, some investment of both time and capital is
needed to monitor the aging progress, so as to know when the wine
is ready, has reached its peak, and begun to decline.
APPLICATION: Regarding that
$4. bottle of California "Champagne" you've been saving from your
1990 wedding to gloriously celebrate your firstborn's 21st Birthday:
it died before you got pregnant. Oh, it was $125 bottle of "Dom Perignon"?
Well then, it may have made it to the Kindergarten matriculation party,
but, beyond that you should have put your money and faith into a couple
of U.S. Savings Bonds.
MY CONTENTIONS: Part
of the problem is that some wine increases in monetary value as it
gets older. The public fails to grasp that the value only rises
because of the wine's increasing rarity, not its increasing quality.
public is also misled by certain "collectors" that are not
drinkers, but simply hoarders who sit on wines for speculation.
have a false impression that wine, simply because it contains alcohol,
has the same general nature and properties as liquor, when wine
in reality has more in common with fresh produce. Wine changes
as it ages. Just
like bananas, some people like 'em barely ripe, mild and firm,
and some like 'em fully ripe, pungent and soft.
Although strictly a matter of personal taste, most experts would agree
that comparatively few wines actually taste "better" when aged
more than five years past the vintage date. This is true for 99%
of all white table wines and sparkling wines and probably 90% of all
red table wines, under average consumer storage
Even among the few
table wines that are able to improve with age and stored in ideal conditions, maybe one-fifth
will make it to twenty years before the aromas and flavors begin
to deteriorate. Of course there are exceptions, but our topic of discussion is the general perception. Most people who taste an "aged" wine
for the first time are disappointed, because what they are usually
getting is simply an "old" wine that most probably has been not properly stored.
MY ADVICE: If you
taste a wine that you like, by all means, buy a few bottles, but no
more than you'll probably drink within the next few months. And then
drink 'em up; time's a-wastin'. It is much less of a tragedy to drink
a wine too young than too old.
Breath You Take
MYTH: Wines taste
better when allowed to "breathe" and get "smoother" the longer they
IMPLICATION: All wine should have the cork removed long
before consumption and the longer the better.
ORIGIN: Other than grapes, the only substance traditionally added to
make wine is sulfur, which prevents oxidation (spoilage).
In the traditional application of sulfur, experience was often more
of a factor than science and excess application frequently left wines stinking
of sulfur dioxide (burnt match), hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg), or
mercaptan (skunk). In young wines, these stenches often are volatile
and not chemically bound in solution, thus some aeration can alleviate
the problem. If not removed prior to bottling, however, the sulfur
compounds over time can bind with other elements and become more difficult
if not impossible to remove by any duration or method of air contact. The other, increasingly more common, basis for breathing is that wine
seems to get "smoother" after an interval of air exposure.
Simply removing the cork has from little to no effect
APPLICATION: The waiter, sommelier, or "expert" is wasting your
time by simply removing the cork without decanting the bottle2. That narrow space of the bottle neck where the wine can contact
air is inadequate to produce any change within a period of even 24
hours, let alone a few minutes. Nevertheless, wine often seems to improve over time, so that the last glass seems better-tasting than the first.
MY CONTENTIONS: Modern methods of
wine hygiene and low-sulfur production techniques have greatly reduced
the occurrence of sulfur-compound stinks in wine, rendering aeration
before serving moot. The phenomenon of wines "changing" over the
course of a dinner to become perceptively "smoother" is a function
more of physiology than chemistry.
Components that help preserve wine and protect against oxidation include alcohol, tannin, and phenolic compounds. Unfermented grape juice contains relatively little of any of these anti-oxidants, yet winemakers exhibit little concern over grapes allowed to sit in uncovered bins for hours between fruit harvest and wine processing. In fact, the popular technique of cold-soaking concedes even longer periods of oxygen-exposure. Doesn't this appear antithetical to the idea that wine in a container with a small opening would undergo dramatic and relatively rapid change?
In the time window
of one or two hours during which it is consumed, the wine does not
change so much as the wine taster changes. That first taste
of wine includes the very slightly painful sensations of heat from
the alcohols and pucker from the acids and tannins. As
the initial shock dissipates, the taster becomes aware of more subtle
complexities. As the wine is
consumed, not only does the palate adapt, becoming more tolerant and
less sensitive to these stimuli, but the tastebuds and brain also
become more and more anesthetized from the ethanol. The wine seems to taste smoother and more complex,
when it is in fact the taster's sensitivities and perceptions that undergo
the swiftest and most dramatic change. (see Taste:
A User's Manual)
As far as (especially)
big red wines tasting smoother the day after opening, I suspect most
of the smoothness comes from the very slight evaporation and reduction
in ethanol, the most volatile component, but with this improvement comes also the loss of
aromas which have dissipated.
Before you argue against
this point, try an experiment (with no deviation or prejudice). It
requires two bottles of the same wine, preferably from the same case,
two identical decanters, masking tape, a pen, and an assistant (although
this exercise is more instructive and fun with additional tasters).
The morning of your tasting, open and decant one bottle. Do not open
the other bottle. Out of sight, the assistant uses the pen and masking
tape to mark each bottle and its corresponding decanter (with a random
mark, such as X and O) to keep track. Several hours later, but immediately
before tasting and out of sight of the taster(s), he decants the second
bottle. The wines are then immediately poured "blind" for the tasters
to decide which bottle (decanter) smells and tastes best. Most taster prefer the just-opened bottle most of
the time. Furthermore, these results will
be consistent, whether using young or aged wines, whether white or
red, and whether the tasters are experienced or not.
A great deal of the
pleasure of wine comes from smell. The smells in wine are comprised
of Volatile Organic Compounds. Some VOCs are present in such minute
concentrations and are so volatile that they may be exhausted and
disappear completely with only a few seconds of aeration. Is it worth
sacrificing these scents for what amounts to superstition that has
little scientific basis?
MY ADVICE: If you
are unwilling to forgo the "breathing" ritual and you truly
place great value in allowing your wines to aerate, simply pulling
corks won't do it. Decant the wine, regardless of an absence of sediment.
However, you must keep in mind that the older the bottle of wine,
the more brief the aroma window, so gather your friends around to
appreciate the fragrances as you decant to remove any sediment and
then pour that wine at once!
And, if you are tempted
to spend money on one of the many devices on the market that promise
"instant breathing" or "accelerated aging", please
consider instead purchasing a bottle of Dr. Jim's Cure-All Snakeoil
(its placebo effect is guaranteed to solve all ailments but stupidity)
(Post Script: the
unpleasant, musty smell that comes from the presence of TCA,
often referred to as "corkiness", unfortunately will not dissipate,
no matter how long the wine is open, nor how vigorous the decanting.)
Got Legs b/w
The Tears of a Clown
Certainly part of
the experience of enjoying wine is visual, appreciating the range
of hue, intensity of color, and the relative density and clarity.
While inspection may provide clues to the age, grape variety, quality,
or other properties, it is fallacy to infer too much about wine flavor
based on appearance. I have drunk wines that looked inky and tasted
watery and wines that looked watery and tasted inky.
MYTH: Wine "legs"
or "tears" indicate high quality.
IMPLICATION: Wines that show "legs"
are always great, while wines that don't can't be more than marginal.
ORIGIN: Who knows? Probably from some pontificating boor at an ancient
cocktail party held to celebrate the invention of crystal stemware.
REALITY: Wine legs
originate from high ethanol, and are no indication whatsoever of quality.
The phenomenon, called the Gibbs-Marangoni
the two scientists who first explained it, occurs because of four
properties of chemical physics. First, if the molecular attraction
between solids and liquids called interfacial tension is slightly
greater than the surface tension which holds the liquid molecules
together, the liquid "crawls" up the glass (assuming the glass is
clean). Of wine's two primary components, alcohol evaporates faster
than water. As the ethanol evaporates, gravity takes over, the surface
tension is broken and the water runs back down into the glass in rivulets.
These "legs" or "tears" are observable because of the difference in
the way alcohol and water each refract light. The phenomenon occurs
most readily in wines above 12% alcohol. Although ethanol, wine's
primary alcohol, is a major contributor to the "body" of a wine, a
high content does not alone guarantee fullness or texture in wine.
are the Lava Lamps of wine tasting; they provide contemplative amusement,
but shed precious little illumination on the subject at hand. Next
time someone showily remarks that a wine "has great legs," explain
the principal and enlighten them. Or don't. In fact, you may get more
satisfaction from chiming-in that you think "the wine also displays
a great ass" and let it go at that. For a good parlor trick, cover
a "weeping" glass with a card. The effect stops (no evaporation).
Remove the card, the glass soon returns to "tears".
CONTENTIONS: Someone will argue (wrongly) that the "legs" phenomenon
arises from a high glycerine content. Wine does contain a trace amount
an alcohol compound. Glycerol does not produce legs, however, as its
boiling point is way above that of ethanol and its volatility therefore
much lower. Glycerol contributes slightly to the perception
of wine sweetness and smoothness.
Wine does NOT contain
glycerine, a trade-name for a glycerol syrup that can be purchased
at pharmacies. Adding the syrup glycerine to wine will eventually,
in fact, produce an artificial "legs effect" from coating the glass,
but why would anyone do this? Not only is it unnatural, the amount
necessary to show "legs" will also give the wine a metallic and bitter
These three myths,
aging, breathing, and wine legs, are by no means the only ones centered
around wine appreciation. They are simply the most perpetually ingrained
and offensive to my own observations and understanding.
wine myths, three wine myths. See Jim get pithed, see Jim get ...
(to the tune of "Three Blind Mice") ... an example
of why I am neither a poet nor songwriter, although I
once overheard a wise man lisp, "It is far better
to be pithed-off than to be pithed on." BACK
2. Frank Prial published an article titled "No Breathing Required" in the Nov 3, 1999, edition of the New York Times. BACK
3. PfW Reader Bob Kerr
informs us that, in Spain, "legs" are referred to as "lagrimas" (tears),
while in Germany, they are called "Kirchenfenster" (church
4. The range of glycerol
content in wine is from 2 to 15 grams per liter, with the average
level for dry table wine at around 5 g/ltr. Botrytis-affected
dessert wines have the highest glycerol content. BACK
Education site discusses "The
Great Legs Debate".