Ten Wine Myths 1. The best wines are varietal wines Many people applaud varietal wines — wines that are named after a grape variety, such as Chardonnay or Merlot — because when you buy a varietal wine, 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 the presence of a grape variety name on the label, 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.
2. Wine has to be expensive to be good For wine, as for many other products, a high price often indicates high quality. But the highest quality wine isn’t always the best choice, 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 an $8 wine in many circumstances. At large
family gatherings, on picnics, at the beach, and so on, an expensive, topquality 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 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.
3. Dark-colored reds are the best red wines 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. (And if winemakers strive to get the grapes super-ripe, which can deepen the wine’s color, the wine is likely to be dark at the expense of finesse in its flavors.) Winemakers today have ways of 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. The tendency to make red wines as dark in color as possible often backfires: the resulting wine may be over-ripe, overly tannic, too high in extract, and/or
too high in alcohol. Regard very-dark colored wines as a warning signal: You may love some of them, but on the other hand, you may find others to be overdone or over-manipulated.
4. 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.
5. Numbers don’t lie 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 steak house 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.
6. Vintages always matter / vintages don’t matter The difference between one vintage and the next of the same wine is the difference between the weather in the vineyards from one year to the next (barring extenuating circumstances such as replanting of the vineyard, new ownership of the winery, or the hiring of a new winemaker). The degree of vintage variation is thus equivalent to the degree of weather variation.
In some parts of the world the weather varies a lot from year to year, and for wines from those regions, vintages certainly do matter. In Bordeaux, Burgundy, Germany, and most of Italy, for example, weather problems (frost, hail, illtimed rain, or insufficient heat) can affect one vintage for the worse, while the next year may have no such problems. Where a lot of weather variation
exists, the quality of the wine can swing from mediocre to outstanding from one year to the next. In places where the weather is more predictable year after year (like much of California, Australia, and South Africa), vintages can still vary, but the swing
is narrower. Serious wine lovers who care about the intimate details of the wines they drink will find the differences meaningful, but most people won’t. Another exception to the “Vintages always matter” myth is inexpensive wine. Top-selling wines that are produced in large volume are usually blended from many vineyards in a fairly large area. Swings in quality from year to year are
7. Wine authorities are experts Wine is an incredibly vast subject. It involves biochemistry, botany, geology, chemistry, climatology, history, culture, politics, laws, and business. How can anyone be an expert in all that? To compound the problem, some people in authoritative positions within the wine field may have had little, if any, education, training, or background in wine before being given jobs by wine companies or columns by publishers, and “ordained” wine authorities almost overnight. Also, different aspects of wine appeal to different people. Depending on what they particularly like about wine, people tend to specialize in some of wine’s disciplines at the expense of others. Don’t expect any one person to be able to answer all your questions about wine in the most accurate and up-to-date manner. Just like doctors and lawyers, wine professionals specialize. They have to.
8. 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 great 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.
9. Great wines are supposed to taste bad when they’re young If this myth were true, wouldn’t that be convenient for anyone who made poor wine! “It’s a great wine,” the winery owner could argue. “It’s supposed to taste bad when it’s young.” In the past, some of the great wines of the world, like red Bordeaux, were
so tough and tannic that you really couldn’t drink them until they had a few decades under their belts. As recently as the 1975 vintage of Bordeaux, some collectors believed that the undrinkability of the young wines was proof positive of their age-worthiness.
Winemakers today believe that a great wine must be in balance when it’s young in order to be a balanced wine when it’s old. Although the tannins in old wines usually soften and/or drop out in the form of sediment, most wines today that are extraordinarily
tannic when young don’t have enough fruit character to last until their tannins fade. A wine can be in balance without being ready to drink. A great wine can have enormous tannin when it’s young, along with its enormous fruit. It may be balanced, even if it’s still embryonic. You may be able to appreciate the wine’s balance when it’s young; you may even enjoy the wine to some degree; but its true greatness is years away, thanks to the wine’s ability to develop flavor complexity and greater harmony of its components with age.
10. 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.
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