Ten things you should stop believing about wine
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The 80’s ruined a lot of things for all of us; there was a lot of shoulder-pad abuse, backcombing of hair, and universal serving of white zinfandel at dinner parties. There still seems to be a lot of misconception leftover from that era, and working in a restaurant I get a fair share of wine myths from the front lines. These are the most common wine myths I feel compelled to debunk based on years of serving experience. I hope this helps some of you shake free of the misinformation and become better informed!
Myth: “Sweet wines are all white zinfandel or come in a box that you keep on top of your refrigerator; they are unsophisticated, and you should not order them out in a restaurant”
This is simply not the case. Sweet wines are not less or more sophisticated than drier varieties. In fact ice wine and sauterne are some of the most expensive wines you can purchase in retail. The reason for this is because harvesting the grapes is a highly selective and manual process – often times where these grapes grow are in steep terrain and slopes, and harbor dangerous conditions for laborers to pick the grapes off the vines. Sauterne is a sweet white wine with notes of honeysuckle and white flower blossom on the bouquet, and it is absolutely divine when paired with a rich blue cheese. If you like sweeter wines, but don’t want a dessert wine, I recommend trying an aromatic varietal like Gewurztraminer from Germany or an Alsatian riesling. These wines aren’t sweet enough to be labeled as dessert wine, but fall into a classification called “aromatic whites” – which really is a fancy term for a wine that smells sweeter than it is. They pair amazingly well with salads, shellfish, or meatier dishes with exotic flavors like thai and chinese. My two favorite things to remember when pairing sweet wines is “sweet with heat”, or “sweet with salty”.
“The cheapest wine on the menu should be avoided at all cost, it is absolute swill, and your server will judge you.”
Just recently, I sat next to a manager of a well known Michelin star restaurant and watched her order bottles of Bud and shots of Jagermeister. So, no, we do not judge you for ordering the cheapest glass of wine on the menu, chances are that is what we are ordering too. If it’s a great restaurant, chances are everything is on the list for a reason, and there is not a “bad” wine. One thing to note: often the cheapest glass of wine on the menu is the least expensive wholesale, so it has the highest markup, but that’s the restaurant business; they make their money on the booze – not the food. If you want the wine with the least markup, it is usually the most expensive glass or bottle on the menu, as restaurants know they won’t be able to use the same formula of 4x the wholesale price per bottle – it’s usually more like 2x the wholesale price. What should be avoided are: “house” red or white wines that do not have a name listed. Typically these wines are lesser quality, or they are only offered during happy hour. Use your discretion; a good tell-tale is if the bar has only macro-brews on tap, chances are their cheapest glass of wine is not worth your money.
“You’re drinking wine with a screw cap?! Ugh, blasphemous!”
Cork is a traditional way of sealing a wine bottle, but it is also an inconsistent and expensive method. The reason why screw caps have evolved to become an entirely acceptable method of wine bottle closure, is because harvesting cork from trees in Portugal and Spain takes greater resources than simply screwing on a cap. Wine didn’t used to be as readily available for purchase in all the grocery stores, online, and wine retail shops, so people would stock up, and save wines for later use. Today, 90% of the wine that is purchased is consumed within 24 hours, meaning a cork is not necessary for laying the bottle down and aging it for 3-5 years. The screw or “stelvin” cap is entirely fine, as it seals the bottle airtight, and there is no chance of the wine getting a defective cork. New Zealand and Australia are both countries that utilize the stelvin cap on more than 90% of their wines, while North America is still around 40%. My assumption for this is because Americans are snootier, stubborn, and still think that it’s not okay to buy wine with the screw-cap – again, the 80’s ruined a lot of things for us.
“The most expensive wine means it is the best wine.”
The “best” wine is always going to be the wine that YOU find to be the best. This means it makes you happy, you know you are going to like it, you are going to have a great time drinking it and it fits your budget. I have had the privilege of tasting some very expensive wines- wines that sell in restaurants for about the same as the rent on my Bay Area apartment, and, yes, they have been awesome, but I’m not happier with them because they are more expensive. If the bill comes, and that bottle of Domaine de la Romanee Conti you ordered to impress your colleagues requires a year to pay off, how is that the best wine for anyone? If you can afford it, and you want to try it, then YOLO; go for the most expensive wine on the menu, but in my experience, most novice wine drinkers can not tell price in the taste. Wine is a total experience drink – it’s only going to taste as good as the company you keep while drinking it.
“I don’t like rose it’s too sweet.”
“I don’t like Riesling, it’s too sweet.”
One of the most common misconceptions is that ALL rieslings are sweet – they are not! Typically people who want a riesling, want a sweeter white wine, and so I see why this is a common myth. Riesling, falls under the classification of aromatic white wine – not dessert wine. The reason why, is because riesling is a highly perfumey, or floral and fruity smelling wine. Our brains trick us into thinking that these smells mean “sweetness”, but we actually cannot smell “sweet”. To prove this to yourself, stick your nose into a sugar bowl, do you smell sweet? No. You don’t really smell anything. You can only smell things that are associative to other things – that is why such a big part of tasting wine is in what you smell. Your olfactory system is the largest memory bank in your brain – that’s why we can instantly get emotional from a certain scent, as they can bring up distant memories for us. Look for words like “trocken” on the Riesling label, or “dry-style”, and you are setting yourself up for success to try rieslings that are not sweet.
“White wine should be ice cold and red wine is served at room temperature.”
Almost every restaurant and bar serves wine too cold or too hot improper temperature. Red wine kept at room temperature isn’t always the worst thing if it’s a great quality red wine – but some of the cheaper varieties are pretty bad at room temperature, and the smell of ethanol is the most dominant aroma, not the other flavors. This is because alcohol evaporates at higher temperatures, so one trick to mask a cheaper red wine, is to keep it slightly chilled – just around 55-60 degrees, so the alcohol doesn’t leap out of the glass, blocking any other aromas. White wines like Chardonnay, that are fuller bodied, should not be drank ice cold – unless you like it that way – as the cold stiffles the complexity of the bouquet. The only wine in my opinion that tastes great ice cold is Champagne. I find that when Champagne warms up, it can taste too appley and acidic – I like to keep the bubbles on ice, the white wine and rose at around 50 degrees, and the red wine just under 60 degrees.
“I can’t drink wine with high tannins – I get hangovers”
Tannins don’t cause hangovers, dehydration does. Tannins are actually one of the organic compounds in wine that have studies linking actual health benefits. Tannins have been shown to lower cholesterol, and blood pressure, and are not only in wine, but in tree bark, fruit, and tea. They are responsible for the astringent mouthfeel, or as I like to call it “cat tongue” that imparts after you take a swig of wine. Some wines have lower tannins, like Pinot Noir, and other wines are known to be high in tannins like Nebbiolo and Cabernet Sauvignon. Typically high tannin wines pair best with meatier dishes or higher fat content meals, while lower tannin wines are easier to drink on their own because they are lighter in style and have a more approachable mouthfeel. The best way to avoid a wine hangover is to avoid cheap wine with additives that make it taste more palatable, but can cause an instant headache. Alcohol dehydrates you, and wine is no exception, but it’s not specifically linked to the tannins in the wine. You can read my full article on why wine hangovers are worse than your run of the mill hangover here and other tips on how to avoid it.
Pairing wine with food is one of the biggest sticking points for people. In a recent survey I conducted, 53% of millennials stated that they did not know how to pair wine with food. Many people rely on things they have heard, but the wine pairing rumor mill has not really evolved to match the change in the industry. I feel that rose goes with just about everything. Fish, meat, pasta, oysters, you name it. Some people can disagree with me, but that’s what is so great about wine – there is not really a right and wrong answer. In food pairing, the main thing to keep in mind is you want a wine that will complement the flavors of the dish. If you are having chicken with lemon butter sauce, an example of a complimentary wine is an Italian Vermentino because it has notes of citrus. If the sauce is more butter than lemon, then Chardonnay will stand up to it better, as it is fuller bodied.
What you prefer to drink, is the wine you should choose with your meal. It’s been known that there are certain food and wine pairings that are more challenging than others. Foods to be careful pairing wine with are oysters, artichokes, spicy food. The biggest no-no’s are to keep bitter food away from high tannin wine, instead pair high tannin wine with high fat foods. The wine should be sweeter than the dessert when pairing sweet with sweet, otherwise the wine will taste too tart. Champagne is perfect with anything salty like oysters. “Things that grow together, go together”, so pair that savory and rustic lamb dish with Nero d’Avola or Zinfandel, and when in doubt, stick with wines from the same region of the food you eat.