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Drinking Out Loud

Wine Myths That Need Shattering

Some wine nonsense never seems to disappear

Matt Kramer
Posted: December 4, 2012

A fellow came up to me the other day and said, "How long do you think such-and-such wine will live?"

My initial impulse was to reply, "How the hell do I know?" But that, of course, is hardly what he wanted to hear.

So I blathered on about cellaring conditions (cold slows maturation), cultural differences in taste (the French and Italians prefer younger wines while the English like their wines well-aged) and, finally, the sheer impossibility of predicting the life trajectory of any wine.

I should have saved my breath. "I don't think the wine has structure," he said, full of self-assurance. That, he asserted, was the predictor of longevity.

Where does this stuff come from? And, more important, why does it persist? It's astonishing how certain beliefs are the undead of wine, forever resurrected and roaming about. For example:

The Structure Myth. Structure is no more a predictor of a wine's future "career success" than your fourth grade attendance record. So why did this business about "structure" become such a devoutly held article of truth?

The myth of structure derives from a long-held and mistaken notion about tannins. Time was, wine drinkers looked at tannin levels in wines, especially red Bordeaux, as a marker of longevity.

A wine without a sufficiency of tannins was thought to lack the necessary "carpentry”; it lacked structure. Wines that could age needed musculature; short-lived wines were akin to jellyfish. (You needn't be a Freudian to assess George Saintsbury's famous description in his Notes on a Cellar-Book of a 40-year-old Hermitage, made from tannin-rich Syrah, as "the manliest French wine I ever drank.")

Effectively, the business about structure came from a Bordeaux-centric view of wine, one that persisted into the 1980s. You might well ask, "What about all those white Burgundies and German Rieslings that age successfully for decades?" Good point. They were conveniently ignored as outliers. Real wine was red, and needed "structure" in order to age for decades.

We know better today, of course. Indeed, the Bordelais themselves long ago dispensed with "structure" as a guiding measure, instructed by no less influential a figure than Emile Peynaud (1912–2004), the university professor and ubiquitous Bordeaux winemaking consultant who single-handedly reshaped how Bordeaux châteaus made their wines.

The breakthrough moment was the 1982 vintage, a rich, ripe year that traditionalists harrumphed lacked "structure." Have you had an '82 red Bordeaux lately? Thirty years have now passed and the '82 red Bordeaux are sailing along just fine, thank you.

Wines age successfully thanks to a confluence of forces involving acidity, phenolic ripeness, pH and that mysterious thing, the wine version of dark matter, called "balance." Some wines, such as cru Beaujolais from great vintages, reach magnificent heights after decades of aging with nary a tannin to be found. Ditto for Barbera, which is one of nature's least tannic red wine grapes.

Forget "structure" in evaluating a wine's capacity to age to glory. It's a myth.

The Money Myth. This one will never die, I know. But still, it's got to be said: There's very little correlation anymore between the cost of a wine and its intrinsic quality. And once beyond, oh, $30 a bottle, there's absolutely no correlation whatsoever.

It's irresistible to conclude that something more expensive is always going to be better than something cheaper. As Thomas Paine put it, “That which we obtain too easily, we esteem lightly. It is dearness which gives everything its value.”

So, OK, I accept that this myth will persist. But I have to add that never in the history of wine has it been less true than today. Winemakers everywhere have advanced scientific educations, equally advanced modern equipment and high ambitions toward quality. The result has been an unprecedented explosion in superb wines from everywhere.

Inevitably, some wines will be better than others. And some wine districts are still improving, with yet more accomplishment to come. But the fact is—and it is a fact—that the old wine aristocracy has been supplanted today by a new wine meritocracy. If you miss this critical fact, then you've missed the most important feature of 21st century wine.

Thanks to this revolution, price has lost potency as a predictor of quality. Simply put, many of today's most interesting, most invigorating—dare I say "best"?—wines are not necessarily high-priced. Many superb wines from Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Oregon, Hungary, New Zealand, Australia and, yes, even California, sell for $20 to $40 a bottle. That may not quite be pocket change. But it's not expensive, either—especially given the quality and originality on offer.

That price tags now tell us anything worthwhile about wine quality is a myth.

The Humidity Myth. I've banged on about this for decades, so I'll be brief. You've all read, over and over again, about how your wines should be kept in a cellar with a certain amount of humidity. The figure cited is anywhere from 70 percent to 95 percent humidity. The reason, so-called, is that you need to keep the cork moist.

This is nonsense. Think about it. Your wine is encased in a glass bottle. It's sealed by a tightly compressed cork, one end of which has a dime-sized exposure to air. (Actually, that’s not even fully exposed, as most corks are covered by a capsule.) The other end of the cork is kept outright wet by the wine if the bottle is stored horizontally.

How much humidity, if any, is going to penetrate the cork, which is already very tightly compressed? Virtually none. And no scientific study, to my knowledge, has demonstrated otherwise.

So why does this myth persist? Fear, mostly. And history. Wine used to be shipped and held in wooden barrels or casks, even in private homes and certainly in restaurants. Private consumers bottled their own wines when they saw fit.

A wood barrel, unlike glass, is porous. When wine is held in a barrel you most definitely want a high humidity, which helps keep the staves tight and reduces the amount of evaporation through the pores of the wood.

In a conventional winery cellar, about 10 percent of the contents of a barrel is lost through evaporation every year. This is why wineries like to have caves, which have an ultrahigh, 95 percent humidity. In Napa and Sonoma, which have high-priced wines, the cost of constructing a cave pays for itself in about seven years from "saved" wine.

Simply put, what's good for wineries and their wood barrels makes absolutely no sense for home cellars with their tightly corked glass bottles.

The need for humidity in home wine cellars is a myth.

Eric Pottmeyer
Portland, OR USA —  December 4, 2012 11:43am ET
Luckily, the myth that wine derives its "structure" mainly from tannins is slowly dying, or at least it's not being adopted by younger generations of wine drinkers. Most of the folks I hear talk about structure these days include acidity and balance as at least as important, if not more so, than tannins alone. Also, many savvy wine drinkers are realizing that the "balance," or lack there of, of wines with high alcohol to low acidity is an important part of the aging equation.

Eric Pottmeyer
Sec Wines
Ann Vaughan
Kennett Square, PA, USA —  December 4, 2012 1:09pm ET
Informative and one of your less controversial articles. Thank you.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco —  December 4, 2012 1:22pm ET
High alcohol + low acidity = 1982 Bordeaux. Just sayin'.
Richard Kim
Anaheim, CA, USA —  December 4, 2012 3:28pm ET
Thanks for another excellent post. I built my home cellar a few years ago with a temperature system but not humidity. At the time it didn't make sense to me that appreciable evaporation could occur through a cork that is tightly in place. Thanks for corroborating my thinking. Great minds think alike!
David Rapoport
CA —  December 4, 2012 7:54pm ET
So many myths about "terroir" that need debunking as well.
Also, add sulfur to your variables for ageability
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  December 4, 2012 9:17pm ET
I've been using structure as a means of evaluating a wine's ability to age for all of my professional career, perhaps longer, and have been very pleased with the results.

But more importantly, this piece seems to confine structure to tannins. Acidity is the most important structural element in white wines, but increases ability to age in both red and white.

Thomas Kobylarz
Hoboken, NJ, USA —  December 4, 2012 10:13pm ET
This is a solid piece of writing Matt, this is a great read!
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  December 5, 2012 11:07am ET

Thanks for this blog post - and I could not agree more. I too often get asked how long a certain wine will age and my favorite answer to this - and almost ANY question about wine - is 'It Depends . . . .'

The fact is that we simply do not have black and white answers on a lot of things about wine, and yet we tend to live in a 'black and white' world where people want 'certainty' or at least an 'expert' to tell them so.

There are so many myths and 'conventional wisdoms' in our industry that are held over from times past that have simply been considered 'truths' for so long that we do need folks like you - and more folks - telling consumers that these things are simply not 'facts' at all.

Your take on structure is a good one for sure. Yep, if a wine doesn't have sufficient tannin, it simply won't age . . . I hear this again and again from very 'learned' wine folks, and I just shake my head. Might the wine age beautifully? Maybe - but maybe not. There is no firm 'fact' there.

A few others to add to your list:

An unfiltered wine is always better than a filtered wine because filtering strips the wine of all kinds of things . . .

You have to have white wine with fish and red wine with meat.

Cork is the better closure to screw caps - why would all 'expensive' wine be under cork if it wasn't the 'better closure'?

I could go on and on, as could you - and I wish that you would. PLEASE continue down this path - and ask your colleagues to do the same.

Richard Albert
Wine Country CA —  December 5, 2012 1:14pm ET
I would like an understanding of ullage if corks are so compressed and and supposedly so air tight?

Please explain desicated corks that are sometimes mis-shapened over time and may be more narrow at one end as I have many times, appear not capable of sealing anything. When corks are barely clinging to the side of the neck of a bottle and can fall into the wine with minimal pressure applied and why is this common only in older wines? Are you saying that time alone dries and tweeks corks? What happened to those corks that crumble sometimes to dust and tiny particles when removal is attempted.

Taking this further, can a solely air conditioned, not humidified cellar, where condensate flows out of the back of an a/c unit, provide equal storage results, than one where the condensate from the cooling unit is blown back into the cellar raising the interior humidity?

Why is is that I have seen lots of low fill bottles in given cellars--all of the bottles coincidently happened to have beeen effected simarily by --what?
I have seen this a couple of times in bone dry storage areas surrounded by concrete(no earthen floor) in cool subterranean basements in the vicinity of a furnace and hot water heater, but not close enough for the bottles to be heated by radiant heat, nor accumulated heat. I am unable to figure this out going with your theory/concept, so what am I not getting in these scenarios.

Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 5, 2012 1:47pm ET
Mr. Albert: You raise a very good, and interesting point about ullage.

As you know, ullage is the loss of wine in a sealed bottle. It seems baffling, as you point out. How can wine be lost from a sealed bottle, especially when one reads about how corks can so tightly seal a wine bottle?

The answer lies in the regrettable fact that cork is a natural product--it's the bark of the cork tree--and thus always subject to quality variability. Put simply, all corks are not equal, even from one bottle to another in the same case.

Now, back to your question about ullage. One key fact to keep in mind is that corks do not "breathe". No air gets through a cork. Rather, air can get in--or wine can get out--only along the sides of the cork.

The degree of the ullage, or loss, is conventionally described based on the level of the wine in an upright bottle: high shoulder, mid-shoulder, or low shoulder. Often, but not always, wines with no more ullage than high or mid-shoulder still can taste appropriate for their age, no more oxidized than a completely full bottle.

How can this be? How can wine get out and air not get in? As a cork ages it loses its grip. (Don't we all?) The answer lies in the size of molecules that can slip past the sides of the cork.

What is being lost is water. (Wine is 70 percent to 80 percent water.) Water molecules are only half the size of oxygen molecules. So while water molecules can slip past along the sides of a cork that is slowly, microscopically, losing its grip, the larger oxygen molecules still can’t get in.

By the way, this also explains why ullaged wines usually retain the same amount of alcohol as they had when young: Ethyl alcohol molecules are twice the size of water molecules. They can’t get out either.

With a good cork, even this degree of molecular slippage requires decades before it begins to loosen its grip even to this extent, let alone giving way altogether. A lesser cork, however, creates an imperfect seal. You get leakage, both of wine out and oxygen in.
Larry Schaffer
Santa Ynez Valley, CA —  December 5, 2012 2:14pm ET

As far as ullage goes, wouldn't the alcohol level depend somewhat on the humidity of where the wine is stored? We know scientifically that with really high humidity levels, more ethanol will evaporate relative to water and the opposite is true at lower humidity levels.

Therefore, could it be possible that alcohol levels in bottle could be altered noticeably with differing humidity levels over time? Not sure if there has been research on this, but definitely something to think about . . .

Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 5, 2012 2:37pm ET
Mr. Schaffer: You ask: "Wouldn't the alcohol level depend somewhat on the humidity of where the wine is stored? We know scientifically that with really high humidity levels, more ethanol will evaporate relative to water and the opposite is true at lower humidity levels."

There are surely people who could answer this better than I. But I believe the issue here is precisely what I was pointing out about the myth of humidity for the home cellar, namely, whether the wine is stored in wood or a tightly sealed glass bottle.

The amount of ethyl alcohol loss from a sealed glass bottle where the cork is slowly, microscopically, losing its grip would be exceedingly small. After all, noticeable ullage typically occurs only after decades of cellaring.

I really cannot imagine that a home cellar at, say, 95% humidity would impact that infinitesimal process from a sealed glass bottle to any noticeable degree.

Of course, if the wine was stored in a wood barrel that same ultra-high humidity would have a dramatic inhibiting effect, as winemakers everywhere well know.
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  December 5, 2012 4:40pm ET
I have to disagree with you with regard to your "structure" argument, and somewhat echo what Mr. Pottmeyer wrote above. When using the word, "structure," I believe many folks (including me, and professional reviewers) are referring to the overall way a wine is built, inlcuding fruit, tannin, acid. It's the wine's makeup....it's structure. I'm not sure at what point structure = tannin.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  December 5, 2012 9:28pm ET
Mr. Brandon R.: You write: "When using the word, "structure," I believe many folks (including me, and professional reviewers) are referring to the overall way a wine is built, including fruit, tannin, acid. It's the wine's makeup....it's structure. I'm not sure at what point structure = tannin."

I take your point. And I agree with you that, today, many people might well define "structure" just as you describe. It's an old problem, namely, that terms and definitions change.

What I was referring to was what was the original usage of the term "structure". As I noted, it was a Bordeaux-centric vision of red wine. Tannins, it was thought, gave a wine "structure".

That the term has since evolved into a different, more encompassing, meaning I have no doubt. But I have to say that I still frequently hear opinions about a red wine's likely longevity based upon its "tannic structure". This is what I think is a myth.

For what it's worth, if we could go back in a time machine to, say, the 1960s or even the '70s, and listen to a group of wine tasters (including professionals) talk about red wines, we would hear the term "structure" used as a reference to the wine's tannins.

French tasters, to this day, often describe a red wine that is expected to age well as being "bien charpenté"--well-constructed.

The Web site of the official Bordeaux producers' association, the Conseil Interprofessionnel du Vin de Bordeaux (CIVB) has a glossary on its French language page. It offers the following definition of "charpenté", which would be the typical French wine-tasting term referring to "structure":

"Un vin est charpenté quand il a une bonne constitution, qu'il est riche et tannique, à l'inverse d'un vin fluide et dilué. Un vin charpenté a généralement un bon potentiel de vieillissement en bouteille."

Freely translated: A wine is charpenté or well-built when it is well-balanced, richly fruity and tannic, the opposite of a wine that is thin-bodied and diluted. Such a well-constructed wine generally has a good potential for long aging in the bottle."

Note the emphasis on tannins.

Now, whether you or I would agree with such a definition is beside the point. I cite it only to suggest that this notion of "structure" prominently emphasizes tannins, without any explicit mention of acidity, length, proportion, scent or finish.

That you, and many other tasters, now define "structure" to embrace just those features along with a (less prominent) role for tannins, I have no doubt. Nor, for that matter, any dispute either.

Terms and meanings change. But the old notion of "structure" featuring a leading role for tannins still persists. Sure, it's old and misleading news. But it's still making the rounds.
Tone Kelly
Rochester NY USA —  December 6, 2012 8:56am ET
I believe that relatively high humidity does have an effect on keeping corks in better condition.

I have a passive wine cellar with lots of insulation and have kept the humidity high by keeping open water in the room. I still have 1982 Bordeaux wines that have fills well up in the neck. On the other hand, I have noticed that some friends of mine have cellars that are dryer, and wines from them have corks that are very dry on the outside and they break/separate part way down when the damp cork section is reached. I believe that keeping cellars humid helps the cork on the outside stay fully expanded and helps with the cork retaining grip with the glass bottle.

I have also read that studies have just been started on the science of what a cork does pass and does not pass. Some producers are selling corks with different rates of oxygen penetration per year. It is interesting that the industry has been using corks for over 300 years yet we still don't know the science of aging wine. I believe that the next 20 years will bring a lot of new knowledge in this area. But for now, I will keep the cellar damp.
Brandon R., Seattle, WA —  December 6, 2012 5:52pm ET
Great information in your reply, Matt, thanks!
David Gigante
Anchorage, AK —  December 10, 2012 7:23pm ET
For once and for all I would like someone to debunk the myth of these contraptions that decant (or age) your wine on the first pour.
Dennis D Bishop
Southeast Michigan, USA —  December 16, 2012 8:20am ET
I am not sure which I like best ...your original blog essay, or your replies to the comments that you inspire. It is great (and most assuredly important) that you continue the dialog, and the learning process.
Russell Kane
Houston, Texas, USA —  December 16, 2012 11:31am ET
I had my lesson on agability of red wines long ago when I bought a split case of Ravenswood Zins from several vineyards around Sonoma and other locales. Luckily back then, they printed lots of good information on barrel treatment, acidity, RS, alcohol and such on the label.

The one and only of the abovementioned parameters that correlated with the agability of these wine after 5 years in bottle was the acidity level of the wine. Therefore, from that time, I have always tended toward crisp ripe wines to stock my cooler.

Russell Quong
Sunnyvale, CA, USA —  December 17, 2012 7:57pm ET
Something I have wondered about for a while: cellaring at a higher temperature speeds up the maturation process. Why not cellar at higher temperatures, say 65F or even 70F, assumming this doesn't hurt the wine, to shorten the wait? It seems everybody is obsessed with (very) cold cellars.

Are there studies of the effects of higher cellar temperatures on both quality and the speedup in development? In the summer, I keep my wines at 63-65F to save on energy.
Joann Degaglia
New York —  December 21, 2012 9:17pm ET
I agree with Mr. Bishop. The blog informative the dialog educational. Thank you.
William Stebelski
St. Louis, MO —  January 24, 2013 11:20pm ET
I just found this post and thread and I find the information and following discussion to be very interesting.

On one hand, I think that humidity does have an affect on cork lifespan but it also depends on the cork. My cellar is not ideal and it is passive, I did my best to isolate it and I do keep open water in the space to increase the humidity. I find some wines with tight corks age just fine with little ullage but others with less tight corks do show significant loss and accelerated aging.

Money; I couldn't agree more; above about $30, price becomes relatively insignificant in consequence and impact in most cases (disclaimer - I focus almost entirely on "New World", specifically California, wines so my experience may be skewed). There are rare occasions where I have found that spending ~$100 for a bottle HAVE paid off in longevity but not necessarily in quality.

Structure - I can't say for sure, but if structure means "heft" then I don't see it, I've had wines that had heft in youth and nothing but alchohol and herbs when aged. If structure means balance with some tannins, fruit, and acidity to keep it fresh, then I find that structure DOES have value for those wines are the wines (regardless of price) that I can keep going back to year after year with satisfying results.

Thank you for continuing to challenge "traditional" beliefs, your columns and articles are always thought provoking and educational.

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