Wine Mythtakes, Part 2: Enjoying Wine

In the first half of this essay on wine myths, I focussed on eight misconceptions associated with buying wine.  In this second half I shall be taking a look at ten myths about consuming and enjoying wine, including two that turn out to be generally correct and not myths at all.  Again there will be two major subsections:  Serving Wine, followed by Wine and Health.

Serving Wine

9. Red Wine with Red Meat, White Wine with White Meat

I know this myth has been fairly well demolished in recent years, especially since the landmark publication of the Rosegarten and Wesson book Red Wine with Fish.  Still, I’d like to summarize my own thoughts, many of them distilled from the work of others before me, of course.

This maxim is mainly valid at the extremes.  The traditional thick rare steak grilled on the barby calls for a young full-bodied red wine.  The big fruit from the wine can stand up to the strong flavours of the grill while at the same time the (likely) pronounced tannins in the wine are muted by the meat’s protein.  At the other extreme, a delicate poached white fish would be overwhelmed by anything but a fresh and crisp white.  In between, however, the method of food preparation is more important than the base ingredient.

Take chicken as an example.  With a delicate cream sauce, a crisp medium-bodied Chablis would go well, but pasta with a chicken (or any) tomato sauce cries out for a good Italian red.  In fact, those wines are good with fowl in almost any form.  Don’t be swayed by those half-hearted attempts to match light red wines with chicken or turkey – go with the gusto!  Another example can be found with most Asian foods, where, no matter what the base ingredient, a white or rosé is your best bet.  And, as always, experiment!

10. Serve Red Wine at Room Temperature

OK, so what’s room temperature?  Well, the kernel of truth in this old saw is that when it originated, rooms, especially in winter, were pretty cold and draughty.  So something like 16°C (60°F) was the norm in the house, and it was also a good serving temperature.  But in our centrally heated homes wine is usually too warm at room temperature so it needs half an hour to an hour in the fridge before pouring.  And err on the side of too cool rather than too warm because the wine will warm up fairly quickly in the glass in any case.

But what’s wrong with 21°C (70°F)?  It’s really a matter of balance.  At room temperature the harsher background flavours (alcohol and various bitter components) tend to be emphasized to the detriment of the overall experience.  On the other hand, too cold and you lose a lot of the more delicate fruit and perfume notes while the wine will seem overly tannic.  Since tannins are not an issue with whites and rosés. they can be served a little cooler (but not at refrigerator temperature) to bring out that lip-smacking freshness.

11. Open the Wine Early So it Can “Breathe”

There are two principal reasons why one might want wine to “breathe” a bit before you drink it.  There may be some volatile (easily evaporated) components that are trapped within the wine or under the cork and that you would like to see disappear because they present some off flavours (“bottle stink”)  The most common culprits are sulphur compounds (found more often under screw cap) or volatile acidity (otherwise known as vinegar).  However, there is a much greater surface area and adjacent volume of air available to wine in a glass than in a bottle, so if those volatile components were able to escape during half an hour of sitting or “breathing” (and that’s unlikely), then they certainly should be able to do so within a minute or two after being poured.

Decanter for young wines

Decanter for young wines

The other reason is to expose a young wine to oxygen in the air.  A little oxidation can soften the tannins and improve balance.  However, the same argument applies here as in my previous point.  If you really want to expose the wine to lots of air, then decant it into one of those wide base decanters (shown at right) and really splash it in, don’t pour carefully.  Slow and gentle decanting is for old wines where you want to separate the wine from the accumulated sediment without exposing that liquid gold to much oxygen.  And that thought provides a segué to the next myth.

12. Old Wine is Better

Like all of these myths, there is always a kernel of truth at the centre, but in this case it might be expressed as:  Old Wine Can Occasionally Be Better.  Most wines are not made for long aging, rather for “trunk aging” (or “boot aging” for some) on the way home from the wine shop.  On the other hand, most wines will not be damaged by lying around for a year or two – some may even improve slightly.  There is a small subset of wines that should generally be consumed within the first year after bottling, such as crisp light Vinho Verde or light rosés.  At the other end of the spectrum is the small subset of wines that benefit from significant aging:  Bordeaux, Burgundy (red and white), Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, many Rieslings, and most of the better sweet wines, among others.  But all of these wines do eventually subside into senility and finally, death.  It may take 10 years, it may take 20 or more, but it happens to them all.  Don’t wait for it.

In fact, for most of us, consuming wine when it is a little younger than peak perfection is usually preferable to a bit beyond its best by date.  And it should be said that many people do not, in fact, enjoy the changes wrought by years in the cellar, when the fruit fades and the tertiary aromas are brought forth.  The best way to find out for yourself is to buy a case of decent Bordeaux, for example, and then have a bottle every year or two in order to understand how it ages.  Sure, that takes time, but you can drink younger wines in the meantime as well as having more than one case slumbering in the cellar.

13. Good “Legs” Mean Good Wine

How often have you heard someone with a small but dangerous amount of wine knowledge raise a glass to the light and comment on the fine “legs” or “tears” running down the side of the glass and how this must be a good wine.  Contrary to this myth, however, the presence of legs is not a function of wine body or glycerol content or quality in general.  It mostly means that the wine contains around 12% alcohol or more (but we already knew that, right?) and that the glass is clean, nothing more.  Although the phenomenon is fun to watch.

Legs are a result of the Gibbs-Marangoni Effect.  The wine will wet the sides of the glass, slowly on its own, or rapidly if assisted by swirling the wine in the glass.  Then as the alcohol evaporates preferentially with respect to the water, the liquid beads up on the side of the glass and eventually runs back down under its own weight.  The magnitude of the effect depends in part on the interfacial tension between the liquid and the glass, which explains why dish washing also makes a contribution.

Wine and Health

There is a lot of information on this subject in my earlier post; here I’ll focus on the myths and misinformation associated with wine and health, and I’ll end with two beliefs that are still controversial and may not be myths at all.

14. Wine is Bad for Your Health

Let’s tackle that main overriding myth right off the bat.  Again, there is some truth at the centre of it.  First, very high levels of alcohol, consumed frequently, are extremely bad for your health – I think everyone can agree on that.  Second, moderate levels can be unhealthy for you or someone else when combined with the operation of a motor vehicle or heavy machinery – again, not much dispute there.  Third, it has been well established in recent years that alcohol consumption contributes to the risk of developing cancer.  The effect is negligible at low levels of consumption but does rise monotonically as consumption increases.  There can be other negative effects at low to moderate levels, but cancer is the biggie.

What’s missing here is the significant health benefits derived from consuming alcohol, particularly for the cardiovascular system, but in other areas as well.  These benefits kick in quite quickly and are near maximum with only a very small dose (around half a glass of wine, for example).  Meanwhile, the detrimental effects accumulate slowly with dose, so that for moderate consumption they are greatly outweighed by the benefits.  The result is what’s called a “J curve” (a somewhat fanciful illusion to the shape of the curve), as shown in the graph below.

Fitted relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality.  Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The relationship between alcohol consumption and risk of mortality (mathematically fitted to data). Risk is reduced for very low consumption and then rises, reaching the non-drinker (baseline) risk at ~2 drinks per day for women and ~3 drinks per day for men (a standard drink is considered to contain 14g of alcohol).

The recommended consumption level of 1 drink per day for women and 2 drinks per day for men results in a significant net health benefit (i.e. lower mortality risk).  It takes at least 2 drinks per day for women and 3 for men before the risk returns to the same level as a teetotaller.  This graph provides a simplified summary of the results of the meta-study by Castelnuovo et al.  There is also some evidence that food consumption reduces the effects of alcohol.  At least one study has shown that a meal eaten with alcohol not only resulted in a 35% reduction in peak blood alcohol content, but it also took 36-50% less time to metabolize the alcohol.

I think the extreme prohibitionist view, at least from the medical profession, comes from the Hippocratic requirement to “do no harm.”  If a medical practitioner only looks at the deleterious effects of alcohol and not at the entire health of the individual, then that approach is understandable if not sensible.  However, it is a disservice to the 90% of the population who are not alcoholics and who do not drive after having had too much to drink.

15. Sulphites Cause Headaches

Some people suffer from headaches after drinking wine, especially red wine, and often within minutes of consumption.  These headaches are frequently blamed on the sulphites in wine, or on the tannins.  However, it is now known that sulphites do not cause headaches and are not allergens (they are not proteins, for one thing), although they may cause a reaction for asthma sufferers (and this is the reason that sulphite content may be quoted on the label, not because of headaches).  After all, there is a lot more sulphite in dried fruit (two ounces contain over 10 times as much as a glass of wine) and in prepared meats.  In fact, the human body naturally produces around 1000 mg of sulphite per day, some 20 times greater than the contents of an entire bottle of wine.

Tannins too cannot be blamed for a wine headache, except perhaps in the case of the unfortunate few who suffer from migraines.  So what is the source?  Well, there is a lot of discussion about the cause, complicated by the fact that there are hundreds or even thousands of naturally occurring substances in a glass of wine.  Some of the more likely culprits are naturally occurring histamines, prostaglandins, tyramine, or residues from the yeast or bacteria involved in fermentation.  The bottom line, however, is that no one really knows what causes a wine headache (other than the one you experience in the morning after having imbibed far too much the night before!)

16. Wine, Especially Sweet Wine, is Full of Calories

Calories in wine arise from the alcohol and from any residual sugar.  Therefore the caloric content of a glass of wine can vary.  Each per cent of alcohol represents 10mL per litre, or 7.89g of alcohol, and alcohol contains 6.9 calories/g.  Sugars (and carbohydrates in general) contain about 4.1 calories/g.  Sugar in wine is usually measured in g/L.  Therefore the caloric content of a 5oz (150mL) glass of wine is:

C = 0.15 x (A x 7.89 x 6.9 + S x 4.1)

Here A is the percentage alcohol by volume, S is the sugar content in g/L and C is the number of calories in a normal glass.  For example, a completely dry wine of 14% alcohol contains 114 calories, whereas a sweet German wine with 8% alcohol and 4g/L of residual sugar contains 75 calories!  So sweet doesn’t necessarily equate to high in calories.  Fermentation simply converts one form of energy delivery into another.  Note, however, that a glass of fortified wine like port, with 20% alcohol and 100g/L of sugar weighs in at over 400 calories.  Fortunately, we tend to drink smaller glasses of fortified wines, so a 2oz glass is “only” 160 calories.

Now that we know what’s in a glass of wine, how does that compare with other drinks?  Well, a 12oz glass of 5% beer contains around 150 calories, the same size of soda pop contains 132 calories, 6oz of orange juice contains 84, and milk has 102 calories in a cup (8oz).  So what’s the verdict?  Unless you’re drinking only water and diet drinks, everything has calories to a greater or lesser extent.  As always, especially with alcohol, the message is quantity.  Just don’t drink too much!  Even that bastion of dieting, Weight Watchers®, has nothing against a glass of wine – it just goes into the calculation of total daily consumption.  Be moderate and you’re fine.  We do need calories (energy) to live – just don’t overdo it.

17. Pregnant Women Should Drink No Alcohol

Here’s one that may not be a myth at all.  First, however, it needs to be made clear that the statement is trying to differentiate between light alcohol consumption and none at all.  It is beyond dispute that heavy drinking is a serious issue and often results in Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.  Moderate alcohol consumption can result in less serious but still significant Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.  Therefore, the current recommendation of the health authorities of most western countries (e.g. U.S., U.K., Canada) is complete abstinence during pregnancy.  But what about very light drinking (e.g. a half glass of wine once in a week)?  Here is where the only controversy lies.

Two recent studies, one from Denmark and one from the U.K., both show a slight benefit to the child from light alcohol consumption by the pregnant mother.  However, other studies show the opposite outcome, although the effects are always small.  Most of the variations are likely due to other factors that may differ systematically between those who consume none and those who consume a little alcohol during pregnancy.  These effects may work both ways, as described here and here.

Alcohol is a known teratogen that passes easily across the placental barrier.  At the end of the day, it is that clinical knowledge that is the basis for a total ban on alcohol consumption during pregnancy.  Now all potentially dangerous substances do have a safe level below which they are not harmful.  But if that level is a trace amount only, then a total ban is sensible.  The problem is that with the contradictory studies that are out there, we don’t really know what the safe level.  Therefore the injunction against any drinking at all is reasonable.  At the end of day, however, if you are pregnant and have a sip once in a while, especially with food (which slows metabolism of the alcohol), the likelihood of doing any real harm is remote – don’t fret about it.

18. Red Wine is the Healthiest Form of Alcohol

Here’s the other myth that contains more fact than fiction, but to a certain extent the jury is still out.  The benefits of consuming wine in moderation are real, as I detailed in the first part of this double post, and in a previous post, Is Wine Good for You?.  The question is:  are the benefits greater from red wine than from other alcoholic beverages?

Those benefits arise from the alcohol itself (little controversy there), possibly from antioxidants (flavonoids and polyphenols such as resveratrol, for example), and maybe from other trace components.  Ethanol (ethyl alcohol, i.e. beverage alcohol) is well known to increase (good) HDL cholesterol and reduce (bad) LDL cholesterol, thereby providing cardiovascular protection.

The effects of antioxidants are less clear and conflicting studies continue to be published.  In general, however, the quantity of antioxidants required for clinical benefit is so great that the amount of alcohol consumed to obtain it would kill you!  Resveratrol in particular is often cited for its benefits with respect to blood sugar control, cognition, cancer fighting, and weight maintenance.  However, a recent study has determined that dietary resveratrol, including that in wine, does not provide any health benefits, probably because the dietary quantities are so low, as mentioned above.  Now, popular press reports of this study have tended to sensationalize it by equating resveratrol with all of the benefits of drinking wine, which we know is not the case.

All right, alcohol in moderation is good in general.  So what about the purported advantages of wine, and red wine in particular?  One interesting study from Spain showed that red wine consumption decreases the incidence of the common cold by 40%, while there was a smaller reduction with beer or white wine and no effect for other forms of alcohol.  There is other marginal evidence out there, but the bottom line is that red wine is at least as good as other wine and perhaps better for you, but the differences are small.  This myth cannot be considered to be true or false, for now.

Way to Go, Véronique!

This past week our very own Véronique Rivest, long time sommelier at Les Fougères in Chelsea, Quebec, reached a pinnacle in the world of wine by taking the runner-up position in the Best Sommelier in the World competition, held every three years by l’Association de la Sommellerie Internationale.  She is the first woman ever to reach the finals in this competition.  Many congratulations and bonnes félicitations, Véronique.  We have even greater hopes for you in the future – remember, this year’s winner (Paolo Basso of Switzerland) was runner-up in 2010!

Sure, you say, that sounds wonderful, but then, what exactly is a sommelier?  Well, we usually think of a sommelier as the person responsible for the wine selection and wine service at a decent restaurant, but in days gone by the sommelier had a broader mandate than just wine, being responsible for all aspects of customer service.  Even today, a sommelier must have a deep understanding of dining and particularly of the menu being served, since food and wine pairing is the most important and visible component of the job.  Therefore even the most expert wine lover, when dining out, will consult with a sommelier in order to choose wine, since the sommelier will have a much more intimate knowledge of the food and its preparation in that establishment.  Never be hesitant about calling on the sommelier for assistance – he or she will love to provide you with the best wining and dining experience possible, while respecting your tastes and your budget.

Sommeliers are professionals whose on-the-job experiences are the greatest teachers.  These days, however, most have had professional training to some degree, at the very least completing a sommelier program at a nearby college.  But, please remember that such training does not make one a sommelier.  For example, I am a graduate of the Sommelier Certification Program at Algonquin College in Ottawa, but I am not a sommelier.  Only those working in a professional food and wine service environment should have that distinction.  Even so, there is a wide range of wine education available to the interested wine lover, amateur or professional.

Along with the professional sommelier accreditation programs offered at community and technical colleges, a range of similar courses is also available in Canada, the US, and China through the International Sommelier Guild.  Their most advanced course also provides accreditation.

Somewhat in parallel with, and ultimately moving beyond the standard sommelier programs, we have the series of courses offered by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust.  This institution is headquartered in the United Kingdom, but its program is now offered worldwide by various contract organizations.  In Canada the courses may be taken through Fine Vintage Ltd. in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, and some smaller centres, through the International Wine Education Guild in Toronto and on-line, through the Vendange Institute in Ottawa, and through The International Culinary School at the Art Institute of Vancouver, in Vancouver.

Beyond the WSET, there are two paths that one can take when shooting for the highest levels of wine certification.  The best known is “Master of Wine” (MW) from the Institute of Masters of Wine.  Also headquartered in the UK, its accreditation was originally only available to wine professionals but, although most MW’s continue to be in the wine trade, the institute now also welcomes amateurs who are willing to invest the time and money required to follow through with the program.  Working towards the MW can be a full time occupation and requires upwards of three years to complete.  There are three parts to the examination – theory, practical, and dissertation.  Currently there are some 300 MW’s worldwide, of which approximately one third are from outside of the UK.  There are four in Canada – James Cluer, Rhys Pender, Barbara Philip, and Igor Rijenkov.

The alternative to MW is through the Master Sommelier (MS) route.  This distinction is strictly reserved for professional sommeliers and is even more difficult to achieve than the MW.  Only 186 individuals have ever succeeded in attaining the MS designation and just two of these are Canadian – John Szabo and Jennifer Huether.  Even our own silver medallist at the Best Sommelier in the World competition is still putting in the thousands of hours required to attain the MS designation.  The organization that certifies an MS, the Court of Master Sommeliers, is once again headquartered in London.  It also offers courses and certifications at several levels below and leading up to the MS.

So if you want to follow in Véronique’s footsteps, you will need years of experience and years of study.  If you only want to add to your enjoyment of wine, take a couple of courses and then pour your own experience!  Either way, you can be proud of your accomplishments and we can all be proud of our new wine superstar.  Way to go, Véronique!


Good Old Wine

There’s too much in my cellar.   I’m finding, like many a cellar owner before me, that some of my cherished wines are over the hill.  I keep making a resolution to drink up all suspect bottles a.s.a.p., but then the next LCBO release comes out and there are six or eight that I would like to try.  And because my favourites never seem to last very long on the shelves, I need to pop those corks fairly expeditiously – if there is something that I just have to have for my cellar, I must get back to the store while there is still a supply remaining.  Now you begin to see the problem.  Since this process repeats itself every two weeks, there isn’t much time to drink the old stuff, and of course I may even exacerbate the problem by grabbing a half dozen Barolo that I loved out of the last release, thereby restocking the cellar.

Bottles aging in the cellar but begging to be enjoyed

Anyway, that’s all prologue to my main topic.  As I sniff and swirl wines that I laid down a decade or so previously, I find some gems and some dross, but the results don’t seem to correlate particularly well with expectations for aging potential.  So what’s going on?

It would be easy to blame my cellar, since it is not a $50,000 climate controlled work of art.  It’s just a small room in the corner of my basement with passive climate control; i.e. the ceiling, interior walls, and upper exterior walls are insulated, but the floor and lower exterior walls are not.  The result is a gentle and steady transition from 19-20°C in midsummer to 13-14°C in midwinter.  The average, then is 16-17°C, not ideal, but not bad.  I would expect slightly faster aging than in a cellar constantly at 13°C, but that’s about all.  Of course it’s dark and there isn’t much vibration – our house sits on bedrock.  In any case, I regularly uncork beautifully aged examples – if the storage conditions were very bad then I would expect most of them to be over the hill early.  So what gives?

One possibility is that some wines are not meant for long aging in spite of traditionally falling into such a category.  Even classified Bordeaux can lull you into a false sense of security.  Here vintage is all important.  I recently opened a 1995 Ch. Calon-Ségur that was fully mature and drinking beautifully – 1995 was a good year for aging.  On the other hand, my 1994 Ch. Pichon Longueville Comtesse de Lalande has never really come into its own.  The wine was as well reviewed as the Calon-Ségur at the time of release, and Pichon-Lalande did a great job in 1994, but that was not a great year.  In the long run, no amount of good work in the cellar and the vineyard can make up for that initial handicap.

Terroir makes a big difference as well.  Burgundy, both red and white, is well regarded for its longevity, but when you take Chardonnay or Pinot Noir away from home, they don’t last as long.  Even good Chardonnay from California tends to fade fairly quickly, while pricey Ontario Pinot Noir is losing it after three or four years.  In both these cases, however, there are signs of improvement.  In particular in Ontario vines are getting older and local techniques are adapting to local conditions.  You still have to keep a close eye on Pinot from the newer Prince Edward County DVA as a lot of it isn’t really cellar-worthy yet (although I keep trying!)  On the other hand, examples from Niagara’s Le Clos Jordanne seem to be just coming into their own after several years in the cellar.  Even with the poster child for lengthy aging, Cabernet Sauvignon, terroir makes a difference, but in a more subtle way.  There is no longer much doubt, for example, that Napa Valley Cab can age as long as a good Médoc, but in a rather different way.  While Bordeaux evolves in bottle into something that (we hope) is completely different from and transcends the young wine, the Napa stuff can maintain its fruity elegance for decades, but always resembles its younger self.  Even a ham-fisted amateur winemaker like me can make age-worthy wine with good Napa starting material.  A recent bottle of my 1996 was fresh and fruity – maybe I should not have stopped making the stuff…

A number of factors affect aging of wine (for more information, look here):  the grape variety, the terroir (here I include local viticultural and winemaking practices), the vintage, and the cellar conditions.  Each has an influence on the wine’s chemical constituents, which is what really counts in the end.  Higher concentrations of acids, sugars, and phenols (including tannins) all increase longevity.  The hundreds of chemical compounds in wine, especially the aromatics (mostly esters, terpenes, and mercaptans) as well as phenols, affect flavour evolution as their concentrations increase or decrease with time.  The bottle stopper also affects the aging process, but I’m not uncorking that can of worms today – you can read more about the latest on the relationship between closures and “reduction” here.

So how does this all relate to my cellar experiences?  I think there are at least two lessons to be learned.  The first is to check on your keepers fairly often and then drink them as soon as they seem ready.  The second lesson is to drink sooner rather than later.  Wines are generally more enjoyable when they are a couple of years young rather than a couple of years too old.  If you want to keep a bottle or two out of a case for posterity or to see how a particular wine fades into old age, fine, but if, like me, you love about wine because you love how it enhances life, then drink it, don’t collect it.