Why DO we swallow all those myths about wine! From screw tops and red with fish to experts now saying letting wine ‘breathe’ makes no difference, HELEN McGINN smashes taboos that will have snobs choking on their claret
For years wine snobs may have turned up their noses at anyone ignorant of the rules of good wine etiquette, from how to hold your glass to passing the port in the right direction.
But in a move set to leave the snootiest of wine aficionados spluttering over their Sauvignon Blanc, the tradition of opening a bottle and giving the wine time to ‘breathe’ has been challenged.
As reported in yesterday’s Mail, a group of experts, including professional tasters and Masters of Wine, agreed that leaving a bottle open for a period before drinking will do little or nothing to improve the taste.
Wine-taster Martin Isark even went so far as to call the practice ‘bunkum’, adding: ‘Most wines produced today are palate-friendly and ready to drink.’
Here, our drinks expert takes a closer look at the wine rulebook. Turns out some rules are made to be broken . . .
More complex wines, with a wider range of characteristics, will benefit from being given time to breathe
Wine does not need to be left to breathe
Actually, the majority of wines really don’t need lots of time exposed to the air before drinking. Pouring it out into your glass and giving it a swirl before you savour it is enough to help release the aromas.
And unless you’re a really fast drinker, the wine will have a bit of time to ‘open up’, or release its aromas, in the glass as you sip.
Having said that, more complex wines, with a wider range of characteristics, will benefit from being given time to breathe.
If you’ve got a smart bottle of something and a decanter to hand, pouring it out of the bottle half an hour before you drink it will help the wine open up more. If you don’t have a decanter you can just pour it into a jug and back into the bottle. Job done.
Good wines do not need to be decanted
The main reason a wine might need to be decanted is to separate the liquid from any sediment — mostly dead yeast cells known as ‘lees’, all harmless — that might be lurking in the bottle. This may have been true many years ago but nowadays the majority of wines are ‘fined’.
Basically, any unwanted bits are taken out with a ‘fining agent’ such as egg whites or bentonite clay, which combine with soluble impurities to produce elements of a size solid enough to be removed.
The wine is then filtered before bottling so any sediment is removed. Vintage port is an obvious exception — skip decanting that and you’ll get a mouthful of what feels like coffee grains but actually includes traces of grape skins, seeds and stems.
And an older wine may have very fine bits of sediment in the bottle. If so, decant it using a muslin cloth (an old linen napkin will do) to catch the bits.
Some wines are built to last in the sense that they keep maturing in the bottle but nowadays the majority are made to be drunk as soon as they’re bottled and on the shelf
A spoon will not keep fizz bubbly
The idea is that by placing a silver spoon in the neck of an open bottle of sparkling wine, it helps preserve the bubbles and keeps it fizzy for longer.
Nice idea — but sadly not true. Because unless the spoon has magic powers that can keep the dissolved CO2 (or bubbles-to-be) in the wine, it won’t stay any bubblier than if it didn’t have the spoon in the top in the first place. In fact, an open bottle of fizz will keep its bubbles for a few days at least if kept in the fridge.
If you want to use a stopper go for one specifically designed to clip over the top of a sparkling bottle. This will give you a few more days to finish it off without it going flat.
Age is not a guide to the quality …
If this were true, it would make choosing a bottle of wine much easier. But age is no more an indication of quality than price.
Of course, some wines are built to last in the sense that they keep maturing in the bottle but nowadays the majority are made to be drunk as soon as they’re bottled and on the shelf.
In fact, when buying inexpensive wines — I very rarely buy a bottle for less than £6 — you’re better off going for a younger rather than an older vintage (year) to get the most out of the fruit flavours in the bottle.
Some wine buffs feel so strongly… that ‘stemwatch’ has its own hashtag
The dimple that can be seen at the bottom of the bottle is called a punt
… nor are bigger dimples in bottles
The dimple that can be seen at the bottom of the bottle is called a punt. But contrary to popular belief the size of the punt has no real bearing on the quality of the wine inside.
Neither does the weight of the glass. Bottles of sparkling wine often have a deep punt, which is designed to help strengthen them — just as the curvature of the bottle helps it contain wine under increasing pressure as fermentation continues, so the heavy glass dimple performs the same function for the base.
One famous exception is the very expensive champagne Cristal.
A certain Russian Tsar requested that the punt be replaced with a flat bottom to prevent bombs being hidden in the dimple at its base.
(He was so paranoid he also asked for it to be bottled in clear rather than dark glass so he would be able to see if poison had been added to the champagne.)
But glassmaking techniques have moved on so much that nowadays a punt has no real purpose. Although it might help you hold the bottle while you show off your pouring technique.
Holding a glass by the stem in fine
Some wine buffs feel so strongly about this that ‘stemwatch’ has its own hashtag, with one recent post featuring a picture of Nigel Farage holding a wine glass by the bowl.
These connoisseurs wouldn’t be caught holding their glasses by the bowl for fear of warming up the wine. But as long as you’re not cupping the bowl with your hands, hold it however you like.
What matters more is the shape of the glass. The ideal shape to capture aromas is a tulip-shaped glass but anything that’s wider at the bottom and narrower at the top beats other shapes hands down.
The ideal shape to capture aromas is a tulip-shaped glass
Stronger flavoured fish such as salmon or tuna love a lighter red like Pinot Noir or Gamay
You can drink red wine with fish
Sometimes the old rule of red with meat and white with fish makes complete sense. Put a juicy T-bone with a glass of delicate white wine and the former will wipe out the flavour of the latter.
But a pork chop doesn’t always need a glass of red to match. Sometimes a richer white wine can be just as good, like a spicy Viognier or a full-bodied Chardonnay.
The same goes for fish; stronger flavoured ones such as salmon or tuna love a lighter red like Pinot Noir or Gamay. The trick is to think about what other flavours are on the plate too. Is there a sauce? How is it cooked? All of these things will determine whether a particular wine will work with the dish — or wreck it.
Helen’s new book, The Knackered Mother’s Wine Guide is out now (£8.99, Bluebird)
SCREW TOPS AREN’T FOR CHEAP WINES
Screw-caps used to be the closure of choice for very cheap — and not usually that cheerful — wines. But in the 1970s, pioneering winemakers from New Zealand started sealing their best wines with screw-caps rather than corks.
And the reason they did this was to avoid the problem of TCA (which stand for 2,4,6-trichloroanisole), the cause of corked wine. It’s a chemical compound and, if present in the cork, will react with and spoil the wine inside the bottle, leaving it smelling dusty and musty like wet cardboard or a damp dishcloth.
Anyway, lots of winemakers now choose screw-caps over cork in an effort to avoid the problem of cork taint altogether. It also saves you having to locate a corkscrew.
Lots of winemakers now choose screw-caps over cork in an effort to avoid the problem of cork taint altogether
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