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Three Wine Myths

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

NOTE (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

September Song

MYTH: Old wine tastes better than new wine.
IMPLICATION: The older any wine is, the better it tastes, ad infinitum.
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."

REALITY: Although 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. The public is also misled by certain "collectors" that are not drinkers, but simply hoarders who sit on wines for speculation.

Consumers 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 conditions.

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.

Every Breath You Take

MYTH: Wines taste better when allowed to "breathe" and get "smoother" the longer they are open.
IMPLICATION: All wine should have the cork removed long before consumption and the longer the better.
ORIGIN: The only substance other than grapes traditionally added to make wine is sulfur, which prevents the wine from oxidizing (spoiling). In the traditional application of sulfur, experience was often more of a factor than science and excess 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 can bind over time with other elements and become more difficult if not impossible to remove by any period or method of air contact. The other, increasingly more common, basis for breathing is that wine seems to get "smoother" over the course of a meal or overnight.

REALITY: Simply removing the cork to allow the wine to "breathe" has no effect whatsoever.
APPLICATION: The waiter, sommelier, or "expert" is wasting your time by simply removing the cork without decanting the bottle. It has been scientifically proven
2 that the 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 the course of a meal, 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.)

She 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" or "tears"3 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 effect after 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.

APPLICATION: Legs 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".

MY CONTENTIONS: Someone will argue (wrongly) that the "legs" phenomenon arises from a high glycerine content. Wine does contain a trace amount of glycerol4, 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 taste.

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.

Jim LaMar


NOTES
1 Three 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 The story of "wine breathing" put to the scientific test in 1998, appeared as "Wine suffocates in the bottle, researchers say" on the CNN News site. 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 windows). BACK

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


RELATED LINKS
"To Breathe or Not to Breathe / That is the Question," an article by Denman Moody on his Moody's Weekly Wine Review site, cites the original Alex Bespaloff article that inspired my skepticism surrounding this wasteful ritual.

The Wine Education site discusses "The Great Legs Debate".

Wine writer Robert Joseph's CorkWatch is a central collection site for information and discussion regarding all forms of wine closures.

 

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Article written September, 2000; last updated May 25, 2009
Except as noted, site design & content © 1999-2009 by
Jim LaMar. All rights reserved.