John JuergensMythical Baggage

I can't think of a single consumer product that consistently carries so much mythical baggage as wine. For centuries all sorts of romantic and other kinds of odd notions have stuck to wine like bugs on a windshield, and I'm at a loss for why this is.

Although some of the notions about wine are just fanciful, others have very practical implications. For example, one of the most frequent and erroneous myths I hear is that all wines get better with age. I've even heard some people say that you have to age every wine before it is drinkable. Of course, this could not be further from the truth.

First of all, there is absolutely nothing absolute about wine, and you can find an exception to every "rule." It is true that some wines get better with age, but the majority of wines made in the U.S. and most other countries are now being made so that they are ready to drink when they hit the market. This is done by various viticultural practices in how the grapes are grown, when they are harvested, how they are turned into wine, and how the wine is handled and processed by the winemaker. In many cases the wine is just about as good as it is going to be by the time it reaches the local wine shop. The challenge is to retain the quality and freshness as long as possible rather than waiting for it to turn into something better.

The rule of thumb these days for American wines is to store whites no longer than 3 to 4 years and ten years for red wines. Beyond this you are taking a gamble. European wines tend to keep a little longer, but not the low end inexpensive wines that sell for less than $10. Certainly, there are wines from the U.S. and most other countries that will age well for more than ten years. However, the problem is knowing which ones these are. A few years back I had to pour about $400 worth of very fine wine out in my yard since I kept them too long.

Some wine experts can predict aging potential by tasting a young wine and evaluating the relative concentrations of certain things in the wine, such as tannins, acid, and sugar, and the degree to which all these components are in balance. They also assess the depth of the fruit flavors and then make an educated guess about how all these things will deteriorate over time, which is what aging is really all about. It's the same principle that we apply to aging beef and some cheeses. However, this assumes that the wines will be stored under ideal conditions, something most people don't have in their homes.

Some wines might start out being very rough and tannic, which can almost completely mask the fruit flavors. Such a wine is not at all pleasant to drink at this stage, but given a few years of aging the tannins can begin to break down making the wine much smoother and allowing the fruit flavors to come forward. Before the introduction of modern wine making techniques, this was pretty much the case with most wines; hence, the notion that all wines need to be aged.

Of course, there is the ever present myth about drinking red wines only with red meats and white wines only with white meats and seafood. I have written about this issue in previous articles, and to reiterate my thoughts on this, nonsense! Rather than looking at these guidelines as an edict, you would be much better off viewing them as a voice of experience, which tells us red wine and red meat tend to go well together as do white wines and seafood. But there also can be some very pleasant crossover combinations of red wine and white meats and seafood and white wine with red meat.

There are only a few wine and food combinations that really conflict, and my advice is to drink what you like and try lots of different combinations of food and wine. You will learn quickly those you like and those that don't work.

One final myth is the "room temperature" business. We always hear that red wines should be served at room temperature. But which room are we talking about and at what time of the year? Average room temperature in the U.S. seems to be considered about 72 degress. This is way too warm for any wine. When wine gets warm it starts to taste nasty and the alcohol tends to come out of the wine faster making it taste "hot". I have never had a red wine that did not taste better when served between 60 and 65 degrees. And white table wines usually are at their very best when served between 50 and 55 degrees.

I heard it said once that for every five degrees you chill a wine below 50 degrees you lose about 30 percent of the flavors and aromas of a wine. So, you can see that if you pull a wine out of the refrigerator that is set at 40 degrees, you will be missing more than half of the flavors of the wine until it warms up ten degrees. One of my favorite exercises is to demonstrate this effect by chilling a wine to 40 degrees or lower and then taste the wine periodically as it warms up to ambient room temperature.

My wine pick of the week is Tott's Blanc de Noir sparkling wine. Normally, I am not a big fan of the low end of the sparkling wine spectrum. However, I was pleasantly surprised by this wine, which has a nice copper-pink color. The term Blanc de Noir means white from black, indicating that the wine was made from black, that is red, grapes. The little bit of color, tannins, and other components pulled out of the grapes skins during the brief contact between the white grape juice and the red grape skins give this wine a nice complexity and texture. At about $8 you can serve this wine any time for a change of pace. I like to serve sparkling wines when there is no special occasion, thereby letting the wine create it own special occasion. Cheers!

July 28, 2000

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