10 Wine Myths Debunked

Can you smell the cork to tell if a wine is corked? Should red wine be served at room temperature? Tim Elliott debunks 10 long-lived wine myths.
By Tim Elliott

Over the past several years, particularly since wine blogs have been around, wine has been demystified and made more accessible to most people. But there are still myths about wine. So here are a selection of wine myths to be debunked:

10) Red wines should be uncorked hours before serving or decanted to show their best – The vast majority of red wines do not need to be opened to “breathe” or decanted to show their best. In fact, I would estimate only 15-20% of all wine produced today should be given air before serving. The wines that benefit from aeration tend to come from specific places and are made in relatively small quantities. The vast majority of red wines can be simply opened and immediately poured to be fully enjoyed.

Wine Glasses
Photo by victor_nuno via Flickr

9) You can tell if a wine is “corked” by smelling the cork – A corked wine is spoiled by the cork but it doesn’t really smell like cork. A good cork will smell woody with only a slight wine tinge and is virtually indistinguishable from a cork that actually spoiled a bottle. Wine is corked by a bacteria called 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) which is transmitted to the wine by infected corks. But the wine itself doesn’t smell a lot like cork, more like wet newspaper or damp basement, and you certainly can’t tell anything from smelling the cork. The only information a cork can provide is to confirm the brand of the producer, vintage year and make sure it is sound and not dried out indicating poor storage.

8) Wine is overpriced in restaurants – Many restaurants in North America grossly markup their wine in order to make up for the thin profit margin on their food. But there are other restaurants who take a more modest markup in order to provide the best experience for their guests. In Europe wine is an essential part of the menu and many places you are likely to find decent wine for the same price or little more than soft drinks or mineral water.

7) The French invented sparking wine – The French may have perfected sparkling wine in the Champagne region but they didn’t invent it. As the myth goes, monk Dom Pérignon discovered how to produce sparking wine by accident as fermentation returned to bottled wine producing bubbles. But the truth is sparkling wine was made in England some 19 years before Dom Pérignon produced his first cuvée. And it had more to do with glass blowing technology than winemaking. The good monk did introduce the key elements of the Champagne style, however, such as blending different grapes and vintages to produce a consistent product and the use of cork and metal foil to seal the bottles for secondary fermentation.

6) Taking a month off drinking will detox your liver – Many people this time of year take a break from consuming alcohol thinking they can detox their system and get back to normal. But a story recently in The Independent claims otherwise. In fact, a Doctor is quoted saying, “Detoxing for just a month in January is medically futile. It can lead to a false sense of security and feeds the idea that you can abuse your liver as much as you like and then sort everything else with a quick fix.” So it is much better to take a day or two off alcohol each week than a month off each year to maintain better health.

5) You need a cellar to store your wine – As you will soon learn not all wine gets better with age. And you really don’t need a wine cellar with pristine storage conditions to store your wine. Any closet that does not vary wildly in temperature throughout the year, is free from light and vibration will do fine for wine even stored for decades. All you need to do is make sure the wine is on its side in a rack or box disturbing it only when you are ready to consume. You should only invest in a wine storage unit or rent a wine locker if you collect a lot of wine that benefits from aging (see below).

4) The correct serving temperature for red wine is “room temperature” – This was actually not a wine myth when it got started back in the 19th Century when a room was heated to only 63° F (17° C) or less. Today central heating commonly heats rooms to over 70° F (21°C) or more. So serving red wine at “room temperature” today is quite a bit over what is should be. Heat changes the aromas and makes the alcohol more pronounced in flavor so even red wine should be slightly chilled in most homes without a cellar. Just put the bottle in your refrigerator 15-20 minutes before serving to be closer to cellar temperature.

3) Wines that smell like wet horse or manure are spoiled – This myth might generate a fair amount of comments but there are aromas in wine that in moderation add complexity. These aromas are caused by a bacteria called Brettanomyces, commonly referred to as, “brett,” which can make a wine smell like a just ridden horse or a fresh barnyard. If brett is too pronounced these aromas change to nylon or vinyl that are clearly faults. But a little horse or manure is often prized in some wines, particularly from Burgundy.

2) All wine gets better with age – Almost all wine today is made to be consumed within the year it is bottled. Red wines might last up to 4 years without decline while rosé wines, with few exceptions, should be consumed within a year of the vintage. Most white wines should be drunk no more than 2 years past the vintage. But as I mentioned in point 10 there are a minority of wines that benefit from aging past these rules of thumb, particularly red and some sweet dessert wines.

1) You need to know a lot about wine to “appreciate it” – Like food, you know really good wine when you taste it. You don’t need a culinary degree to appreciate a good steak and likewise don’t need to know much about wine to be blown away by the aromas and flavors of a really good bottle. For some of us, these experiences drive us to learn more about wine but this is not a prerequisite to appreciate wine. Drink what you like and look for more of the same.

Cheers!

6 Comments
  1. I’ve proved time and time again in blind tastings that many indeed most red wines and many whites improve with breathing. Cheap industrial wines less so but certainly tannic younger wines benefit to a varying degree.

  2. Ross – wines can indeed benefit from ‘breathing’, but the main point is that wines cannot breathe effectively simply by opening the bottle and letting it stand. This is hardly surprising as the contact area between the wine and air is about the size of a 1p piece, and the wine is 20cm deep; oxygen interacts very slowly with the wine under these circumstances.

    To breathe properly the wine needs to be decanted into a wide vessel where the contact area is the size of a small plate and the wine is only around 5cm depth. Especially for young, tannic wines this can improve the taste, although it also depends on the type of food you are serving with the wine whether you actually want the tannins softened.

  3. Detoxing the Liver:
    This is actually true. Alcohol consumption of more than the recommended dose can lead to steatosis “alcoholic fatty liver”. If changes aren’t made and the person drinks more than >400g of alcohol per week (approximately 29 standard drinks a week) this can lead to further complications and even cirrhosis.

    Uptodate.com and American College of Gastroenterology state that stopping the consumption of alcohol for 3-6 weeks has been proven to heal the histologic formation of steatosis. Effectively, many studies have been shown that this is in fact true and can help to decrease the production of steatosis in the liver.

    Hopefully that helps and the true myth can be revealed. Thanks for your time.

    … But seriously, you can’t get anything from smelling or looking at the cork?

  4. TCA is not a bacteria. it’s a compound that is created by the interaction between a fungus and the bleach they use to clean the corks.

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