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Myths about wine
Don't believe everything you hear...

Every week someone comes into the store and repeats a wine myth that just isn’t true. Here are a few of the most common ones I encounter:

Alcohol kills brain cells
This one has been repeated so often, it goes under our collective wisdom category. The truth is that neither wine nor alcohol kills brain cells. That isn’t to say that brain chemistry isn’t altered by alcohol or that the dendrites that pass chemical messages along aren’t discombobulated temporarily. Almost all effects of alcohol on the brain are reversible and no brain cells are killed. In fact, wine drinkers are less prone to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia than are non-drinkers. Further, elderly people who have a glass of wine or so per day do better on cognitive tests than non-drinkers.

Sulfites are bad
There are a bunch of sub-myths that come out every week along with the “sulfites are bad” myth.

The first one is that sulfites cause red wine headache.
The .4% of our population that has sensitivity to sulfites suffers respiratory distress, not a headache. If you think you have sensitivity to sulfites, eat a handful of raisins or a dried apricot. Both will deliver a dose of sulfites ten times what you’d get in a glass of wine. If you have the sulfite sensitivity, you will have a rash, trouble breathing and maybe diarrhea. Many foods contain sulfites and I can guarantee you won’t get tea headaches, shrimp headaches, cheese headaches, or yogurt headaches, and all of those foods have more sulfites than wine.

Speaking of red wine headache, several compounds have been implicated in causing this nefarious reaction. Tannins are found in grape skins and therefore tannins are found in red wines. One of the functions of tannin is to cross link proteins and there is some speculation that this happens in the brain and my cause some pain. Red wine also contains glycerin (glycerol) which can cause stuffy nose, a flushed face and a headache within minutes of ingestion. Histidines and histamines can also cause similar reactions. If you ever find the exact cause for red wine headache, you will be nominated for the Nobel Prize. We already know it isn’t sulfites.

Another myth I hear is that Europeans don’t add sulfites to wine.
The fact is that they have been adding sulfites to wine since Roman times. Sulfites are powerful antioxidant and antimicrobial materials. If the Europeans didn’t use sulfites in their 400 year old wineries, they would be owners of 400 year old vinegar factories. The French and Italians, in particular, would not be able to produce shelf stable wines that last over 2-3 years much less the 15-30 years for the best Bordeaux and Barolos. European wines contain an average of 80 parts per million of sulfites. That is exactly the same as the average American wine.

A good rule of thumb to remember is that if it doesn’t have sulfites, it isn’t wine. Sulfites are a natural by product of fermentation and they are more beneficial to wine than they are harmful. Organic wines can be made without added sulfites, but there will always be some sulfites present. With organic wines, I think it is more important that the grapes are grown organically with no added fungicides, pesticides or insecticides than having a few micrograms of a rather innocuous natural substance. Or think of it this way: Wine is 99.992% sulfite free.

The more expensive a wine is, the better it is
Ok, there may be a little truth to that correlation but it isn’t a hard and fast rule. In my opinion, there is a better correlation between low price and a low quality wine. If wine producers buy the lowest priced, most inferior grapes, it is just about impossible to make good wine. On the other hand, having the best land for vineyards and the best growing conditions hasn’t made any winery immune to making a stinker every once in a while. I think the brands that have proven themselves over the years as good producers will make the best wines regardless of price point. There are good wines at every price point and there are some pretty wretched ones all up and down the scale. Work on finding the good ones.

Blended wines are inferior to 100% varietals
Again the rule is flawed...there are plenty of examples of single varietal wines notably Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that are exceptional because they don't lend themselves to blending. However, wine labeling laws in the U.S. generally require only 75% of the wine in the bottle be made from the grape on the label. It is not uncommon to find wines from Washington State that are labeled “Cabernet Sauvignon” that contain 80% Cabernet and the balance is a blend of Merlot, Cab Franc and/or Malbec.

The reason many wines are blended is because the flavors and characteristics of blending grapes balance and enhance the flavors of the other grapes in the blend. A few months ago, we had the Cicchitti Red Blend from Argentina. The 60% portion of the blend that was Malbec gave the wine a full flavor and a smooth, rich mid-palate. The 30% Cabernet added fullness and length to the finish. The remaining 10% Merlot added richness and rounder flavor to the overall mix. The result was one of the most popular wines we’ve ever featured in the Wine Club.

Another way to think about the blending process is a musical analogy. A violin sounds very good by itself and the violin section often carries the melody in a symphony orchestra. However, the addition of the other strings, the woodwinds, brass and percussion make the overall orchestral experience much richer than a solo violin or the violin section just playing the melody. Wines can be mixed into a harmonious and balanced blend that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Sparkling wines must stay refrigerated once they have been chilled
This myth also has no basis . The “mushroom” cork in most sparkling wine is more than adequate for keeping the bottle sealed under most circumstances. Extreme heat and cold (more than 125 F or less than 32 F) are not recommended, but a slow change from refrigerator to room temperature or vice versa will not harm sparkling wine.

Wine only gets better with age
Women may get better with age but the same isn’t always true of wine. About 95% of the wines sold today are ready to drink today and will only marginally improve in the next few years. Reds, in particular, have a life of about 10-12 years after which they lose their fruit flavors and balance. After 20 years they are mostly a brownish blend of alcohol and acid with no other flavors to offer. The exceptions are the top Bordeaux and California Cabernets, as well as Italian Brunellos and Barolos. These wines are rich and tannic in their youth and age well due to the anti-oxidant properties of the tannins, the acids in the wine and the antiseptic qualities of alcohol.

Doug Badenoc - Wine Gallery Grapevine