Do you check if a wine is bad by smelling the cork? Do you blame the sulphites in wine for your headaches, or turn your nose up at drinking red wine with fish?
In the first of a two part series, Rod Smith explains 6 of the most common myths about wine. The owner of the Riviera Wine Academy, he is one of only a handful of Masters of Wine working in France and the only one to work with yachts. The MW qualification is the highest possible achievement in the world of wine and something only 312 people hold.
1) You can tell if a wine is bad (or good) by smelling the cork
You cannot pronounce a wine good or bad by smelling the cork.
Unsurprisingly, corks smell of, er, cork. What you actually need to do is smell the wine. If that smells of cork (or more specifically damp, musty cardboard) then there is a problem and the wine should go no further towards the glasses.
Cork taint will get worse with aeration – and not ‘blow off’. However some other unappealing smells, known as ‘bottle stink’ (a drainy, or rotten egg sulphur aroma) will clear with decanting or swirling
However, it’s worth noting that cork taint cannot do you any harm, and usually seems to disappear if the wine is cooked with, so it need not necessarily have to be poured down the sink.
2) The more expensive a wine, the better its quality
While ‘you get what you pay for’ is often a good maxim with wine, the price of a bottle of wine depends on many factors – the cost of vineyard land, ease of growing grapes, packaging, rarity and reputation. The most expensive wines will be those where all these costs are high. However, the world’s best, say, Muscadet or Jumilla, will remain relatively inexpensive wines because the land is cheap and the demand relative to availability greater. These may well be far better quality examples of their kind than a Burgundy or Napa Cabernet at twice the price.
3) White wine with fish and red wine with meat
There are no fixed rules for food and wine matching, and this general rule of thumb has so many exceptions that it is not very helpful. A light fresh simple dish of grilled white fish with oil and lemon will warrant a white wine for sure, but a rich salmon dish with a sauce of mushroom or fruit, or meaty fish such as tuna and swordfish are usually better suited to reds. Salty flavours usually want tannins in a wine, which means red, and spicy flavours usually warrant rich wines with some sweetness or alcohol, and not determined by the colour. Red Loire Cabernet Franc wines are among the most versatile of all wines and can easily accompany a variety of fish, poultry, meat or cheese dishes.
4) Wine lovers are always ‘snobs’
Only if they live in Bordeaux or California! (Joking, of course) In fact the word ‘snob’ seems to follow the word ‘wine’ more frequently than it does any other.
But true connoisseurs of wine realise that sometimes a cheap wine is the perfect match, and that it does not matter how much you know about wine, the one constant is that there is, and always will be, more to be discovered.
Beware those who hide their ignorance behind arrogance!
5) Red wine should always be served at ‘room temperature’
The phrase ‘room temperature’ was coined by people in England before the arrival of central heating. It meant as opposed to cellar temperature, and probably depended on where in the room you were at the time. So thermostats and different countries and climates have rendered it useless.
It’s a personal choice. If you dine al fresco in Sydney or Cape Town in the summer these days you will likely be given an ice bucket irrespective of the colour of wine you ordered. You can always warm a wine up with your hands, but unless you are a lizard you cannot cool it down.
However beware of serving red wines very cold, because the lower temperature the more bitter things can taste. Just like the 70% cocoa chocolate that tastes crunchy and cardboard straight from the fridge but delicious at 18°C, if you chill something bitter it will taste more bitter. This is the reason that you serve lager cold, but ale (which has more bitter flavours from hops) less cold. Some (not all) red wines contain tannin, the gum coating substance that makes you lick your teeth. This is bitter and should not be chilled. Light, tannin-free red wines, like Beaujolais and Valpolicella, however, can really benefit from a spell in the fridge before service
6) Sulfites/Sulphites in wine cause headaches
About 1% of people may experience an allergic reaction to the Sulphites in wine, resulting in a headache (or worse). This is a high enough percentage that wines now routinely carry the standard allergen warning.
Sulphites are natural substances which exist in all living creatures, and are in fact a by-product of the yeast that causes the fermentation. Additions (as Sulphur Dioxide SO2) are normal and traditional as they stabilise the wine and prevent bacterial spoilage and oxidation.
White wines contain more (and sweet wines even more) than reds. SO2 has the E number 220. Have a look in your kitchen cupboard to see how commonly this substance is used. A packed of dried raisins or apricots will have far more sulphur than a bottle of wine.
It is – just - possible to make wine without adding sulphur, but they tend to be dark in colour and often somewhat unstable, as well as retaining the naturally yeast-produced sulphites anyway. What gives you the headache is the alcohol I’m afraid. Make sure you match the wine with an equal quantity of water throughout your evening and watch you consumption to lessen the risk of a headache.
Next time: 6 more myths about wine. Got any questions about wine? Ask Rod via the comments section below, or click on 'Contact Author' for private message.
About the author: Rod Smith MW is the owner of the Riviera Wine Academy offering wine tastings, dinners and courses tailored for yacht and villa guests as well as training for crew and general wine consultancy. One of only 312 Masters of Wine (MWs) in the world, and just a few in France, Rod is a charismatic presenter and authority on wine as well as a respected public speaker and international judge. www.rivierawineacademy.com