Wine Myths Busted: Screwcaps, Cellars, Breathing & Stemware
Heard it Through the Grapevine
By Paul Howard
The subject of wine is full of fascinating myth, lore and tradition. Nevertheless, not all of it is true and worse, it can so easily get in the way of wine’s first duty – enjoyment. Here are four myths about storing and serving wine busted by some practical advice.
Screwcaps – what a sterile debate
Some wine drinkers despise the trend towards wines bottled under screwcaps and see those wines as being of poorer quality. But like everybody else, I don’t enjoy corked wines! A corked wine doesn’t have bits of cork bobbing in it; rather a foul chemical known as TCA taints the wine. This can arise from poor corks and it was claimed this affected up to 5% of bottles to some degree. TCA ranges in intensity – from making wines taste of cardboard all the way to inducing nausea. The wine industry has come up with various solutions, including screwcaps. Given that most wine made is to be drunk young rather than to be aged in bottle, a closure that ensures freshness (and avoids messing about with corkscrews) is commendable. Meanwhile this threat to the cork industry means that cork quality has also improved!
However, cork also allows tiny amounts of air into the bottle essential to develop wines made for ageing. Simply put, screwcaps are probably more suitable for drink-young wines with corks used for the longer term. But to complicate matters, even this air regulation is now possible with the latest screwcap technology.
It will be some years before the effects of screwcaps on mature older wines are fully understood. Meanwhile we should enjoy more wines that are free from TCA regardless of whether corks or screwcaps are used. While cork has lost its monopoly, either method is preferable to those awful plastic corks!
Storing wine needs a cellar or an expensive cabinet
Some lucky people have a cool damp cellar ideal for wine storage, or are willing to spend considerable sums on a dedicated wine cabinet. Most people are not in that position but with a little ingenuity, you can create a ‘wine cellar’ at home by considering some key principles.
The temperature at which wine is stored is naturally important, but avoiding temperature fluctuation is the essential point. Avoid keeping wine in the kitchen at all costs and look for alternatives; investigate the cupboard under the stairs, a little used spare room or even an old coal-hole. These are ideal if the temperature is generally fairly even and there are no central heating pipes or radiators. 10-15°C is ideal, but 15-20°C is still ok. Seasonal temperature differences are gradual and have little effect. Fluctuations that are more frequent are the enemy, especially outside 10-20°C; this is why an attic, garage or shed is rarely suitable.
“Store wine far away from chemicals or paint”
Low humidity may dry corks can out over several years and break their seal – simply leave a bowl of water to prevent that. Dampness is fine although the trade-off is label damage. Personally speaking, that doesn’t worry me as long as I can still identify the contents, but if you prefer pristine labels, try a cling-film wrap or use hairspray!
Darkness is essential to protect from UV light and a place free from regular disturbance is desirable too. Always store wine far away from chemicals or paint – it’s an unhappy combination and too often forgotten!
If home storage is still impractical, then consider professional wine storage offered by a merchant or storage specialist. This might be a few pounds per case per year but the wine will be stored under ideal conditions. Professional storage is vital if any wine is kept as an investment – you’ll need to demonstrate perfect storage credentials if you plan to sell-on later.
Open a red wine bottle beforehand to let it breathe
Letting wine breath by opening it an hour or two beforehand is a complete waste of time. Only a tiny surface area is exposed to air compared to the volume in the bottle so there is precious little effect. Years ago, this practice had some merit with old bottles to remove sulphurous “bottle stink”. This is encountered rarely today because modern wines are generally cleanly made. Still, there are some very good reasons to try decanting, which exposes the entire wine to air.
Firstly, there may be sediment in the bottle. Sediment is good – it shows the wine has not been heavily filtered and has continued to develop flavours in bottle. Secondly, some wines just look aesthetically pleasing in a decanter or jug – and that applies to big or older whites as much as reds. Lastly, if you have a young and/or tannic wine you can soften it up and encourage aroma by splashing it into a jug. How long to decant before serving? That’s another subject, but an hour before is usually enough, except with fragile old wines – only decant those just before drinking.
Wine glasses – anything will do
Despite one of my most memorable wine experiences being a Californian Pinot Noir drunk from a plastic tooth mug, using good glasses enhances the wine experience enormously. Glass is thin and inert, while plain and clear crystal is the best way to get up close and personal. I much prefer this to thick, cut, coloured, frosted or patterned glass.
The best glasses are tulip-shaped so that the bowl is wider than the rim to catch the aromas in the headspace above the wine. ISO standard tasting glasses are a good basic shape and inexpensive, if a little small.
“Don’t overfill your glass or those of your guests”
At the extreme end of the scale, companies like Riedel, Spiegelau, Zwiesel and Mikasa make individual glasses where the shapes is dedicated to specific wines! While it is true that this can enhance the taste, buying a complete range of such glassware isn’t practical for reasons of storage, let alone economy. It’s all too easy to succumb to their charms on the way to wine geek-dom.
Thankfully, these companies also make excellent general red and white clear crystal glasses that are excellent all rounders and these are highly recommended. The only other glass you then need is for fizz. An elegant tall flute keeps those bubbles streaming for longer, all part of the pleasure. Beware those hopeless champagne coupes of yesteryear – fizz flattens in no time.
Finally, don’t overfill your glass or those of your guests, the wine can’t be swirled without accident and those aromas can’t collect for your pleasure. An overfilled glass is not a sign of generosity but regular topping up is!