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Monday, October 27, 2008

Let's Do Some Debunking

Years ago, when I first started my Geocities website, I wrote a series of articles surrounding some of the common wine myths out there. I don’t think that my Geocities website had a lot of exposure – which is why I shut it down and started my own wine blog – but the articles that were there were good and they provided some background and explanation on some of the “interesting” comments I heard (and still hear) being made about wine in general. What I’m going to do today is look again at some of those wine myths again as well as add in a few new ones I’ve heard recently. So, is screwcap wine cheap, does the price of the bottle determine how good the wine tastes, do you always have to put red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat? These are just a couple of the myths I’m going to debunk here and this will probably turn into a multi-part blog simply because there are so many out there that can be touched on...

Screwcap vs. Cork

This is probably one of the biggest debates currently being discussed in the modern wine industry today. As with most debates, there are pro’s and con’s for both screwcap and cork and, when it comes to cork, there is an added dimension to the debate as the choice between natural and synthetic cork exists. However, let us start with looking at the pro’s and con’s of using screwcap. Although there are not a lot of points against using screwcap, they do exist. First, and foremost in my opinion, is that the actual screwcap closure is not recyclable. All the other forms of closures are recyclable and in this day and age, our planet needs all the help it can get making screwcaps counter productive.

One of the common misconceptions when it comes to a point against using screwcap is the belief that there is no aging potential for a wine using screwcap once it is bottled. This belief ties in with the thought that a bottle sealed with natural cork is interacting with the cork furthering its aging potential. Unfortunately, this is really not the case and, this is the reason why. Think about the size of a cork at its ends – it is roughly the size of a nickel once it is out of the bottle and has expanded slightly. Consequently, inside the bottle, it is somewhere in between the size of a dime and a nickel. What this equates to is the surface of the wine that touches the cork will be an extremely small size and, in reality, there is very little aging potential coming from the cork. The reality is that wine is constantly changing itself meaning that the closure on the bottle has minimal impact. The idea that a wine closed with a screwcap has no aging potential is false but, since it is still a part of people’s perceptions, it is viewed as an argument against using screwcaps.

The next two arguments against using a screwcap closure are closely inter-related so we will discuss them together – loss of romance and the idea that a screwcap looks cheap. Imagine you are in a fancy restaurant and you order a bottle of wine. Now, imagine how you would feel when the waiter brings over the bottle of wine and you discover that your expensive bottle of $100 wine has actually been sealed with a screwcap. It almost feels like the air has been let out of all your tires and it does look cheap.

As a final argument against screwcaps, there is the potential cost of a new bottling line. Now, this is not an expense that every winery who uses screwcaps would incur but if an established winery that was using corks decided to shift even a portion of their product line to screwcap they would incur the cost of a bottling line change and, even possibly, the cost of purchasing a second, separate, line specifically for their screwcap wines.

On the opposite side of this debate, there are just as many points supporting the use of screwcap as an acceptable closure for wine bottles. One of the biggest of these points is that using a screwcap eliminates the possibility of cork taint. There is absolutely nothing worse than investing in an expensive bottle of wine, storing it in a properly designed wine cellar for years, inviting good friends, your boss or an important client to share this “spectacular” wine with and opening it only to discover that the cork had a microscopic fungus growing on it which has now ruined the taste of your wine. There is another problem though – cork taint can affect young wines as well as older wines. Instead of it being the expensive bottle of wine that you have cellared for years, it could be the expensive bottle of wine you picked up at your local wine shop on your way home for the important dinner with your boss. Either way, this is not something you ever want to experience, making a wine with a screwcap closure not as bad as you might imagine.

The next point supporting the use of screwcaps is not one you will encounter everyday but for anyone with a big, or even medium sized, wine collection it is one you should consider. Have you ever noticed when looking at the different bottles of wine in a wine shop just how many different bottle shapes there are available? Some of them are shorter and rounder while others are long and slender. Although all of the bottles look incredibly elegant, some of them – in particular the long, slender ones – are extremely difficult to stored on their sides in a wine cellar when you do not have individual slots for each bottle of wine. Of course, you always have the option of standing the bottle upright but if the bottle is sealed with a cork, you run the risk of the cork drying out if it is store that way for a while which means it will break apart into the wine when you attempt to open it. By using a screwcap, the winery has helped you out by eliminating the need to lay it on its side as well as make it easier to open as there is no chance of a disintegrating cork to deal with.

Following along the same lines is the fact that a screwcap is infinitely easier to open. By sealing a bottle of wine with a screwcap, the winery has eliminated the need to use a cork screw which some people find intimidating to handle and use. They have also removed the need for foil and foil cutters. This step, along with a few others can result in some major savings per bottle for a winery. Given the talk that the reserves of cork trees are said to be depleting, plus the potential for savings in a fiercely competitive market, it is not surprising to understand why a large number of the world’s wineries are making the switch to screwcap.

Now, let us take a look at the arguments for and against the use of corks, whether they are natural or synthetic. With either type of cork, you can always run the risk of either the cork taint problem or the issue of the wine bleeding into the synthetic cork resulting in a diminished colour or flavour. However, when it comes right down to it, using a natural cork closure is the most expensive of the three options. There are two final points for the argument against but it is important to point out that they only apply to synthetic corks. Firstly, the synthetic corks are not recyclable which means they are not environmentally friendly. Secondly, out of all the available options, synthetic corks are the most difficult to remove from the neck of a bottle. It almost feels like the synthetic corks are sticking in the neck of the bottle and, unless you have a lot of upper body strength, it can be an incredible struggle to remove that cork so you can enjoy that glass of wine.

On the pro side of the argument there are just as many points supporting the use of corks. Despite all the arguments against using cork, sealing a bottle of wine with cork still looks the best. There is also the fact that natural cork can be recycled and by using the cork trees that are already planted, cork farmers are encouraged to replant the cork trees allowing for new growth to help our environment. If a winery is established, they will have an existing bottling line eliminating the expense of purchasing a new bottling line to accommodate screwcaps. For a new winery starting up, if they choose to go with cork, chances are they will be able to find a used bottling line for corks that costs less than a new bottling line that works for screwcaps. Since it is commonly a goal of any new business to save costs wherever possible, this would be a step in the right direction. We have discussed the problem of cork taint previously – in both this chapter and others. However, what we have not discussed is the probability of cork taint actually occurring. Essentially, cork taint is a chemical reaction to a fungus present in either the bottle or on the cork. In the province of Ontario, the health and safety requirements for businesses, and particularly in food and beverage related businesses, are such that if a company does not keep their facilities clean and sanitary, they will quickly find themselves out of business. Consequently, the bottles and corks are so well sanitized that there is less than a one percent chance that a wine sealed with a natural cork will develop cork taint. The final argument supporting the use of cork is dependant on how creative the winery wants to be. Some wineries, and this is always an option to any winery choose to be creative with what their cork actually looks like when removed from the bottle. This is not to say that they use different shapes as they are limited by the shape of the neck of the bottle. However, there are wineries that use colored corks – like Vampire Winery of Paso Robles, California who use a cork that is the colour of blood red – and other wineries that have a design or mural applied to the sides of their corks.

So, what is your opinion on the screwcap versus cork debate? Everyone has one and every opinion is valid as long as it can be backed up with reasonable information. Honestly, for me, I can see the reasons to use either and I base my decision on the specific situation. If I was planning to give a bottle of wine as a present to someone who is new to the world of wine, I would certainly not be opposed to it being closed with a screwcap. As a Cellar Master, I could certainly appreciate it when I came across one of those long, slender bottles that was sealed with a screwcap as trying to stack them when laid on their side can be an absolute nightmare. However, nothing would horrify me more if I were to be presented with a bottle of wine at a fancy restaurant that was sealed with anything less than a natural cork. What it comes right down to is winemakers preference and careful market analysis as performed by the winery.

White for White and Red for Red

Wine, no matter what the grape should be matched with the flavour of the food you are going to be eating. You do not want a wine that will overpower the food while you equally do not want to drink a wine that will become lost in the flavours of the food. The goal of any food and wine pairing is to find that perfect balance of flavours between what you are eating and what you are drinking. Typically, with every type of food, you will find both a white wine and a red wine that matches perfectly with it. Occasionally, you will find a rose wine that will also match with your food choice. Now, how many of you immediately thought about that glass of White Zinfandel you like to sip during the summer months on your patio by the pool? Although there are probably a couple of appetizers or a salad that you enjoy eating alongside that glass of White Zinfandel, the world of rose wines is so much bigger than that. Down in the Lake Erie North Shore wine region of Ontario, there is a winery called Smith and Wilson Estate Wines that makes a really great free run Chambourcin Rose which is a little more tart, almost medium bodied, rose wine that pairs perfectly with fresh fish, cream sauce pastas or a plate of Bruschetta.

They say that variety is the spice of life and when it comes to pairing wine with food, it is one of the best practices to follow. Every year, every winery will release a new vintage of their wines and, occasionally, they will release a new wine that they have never made before. With each new vintage the grapes have been exposed to changes in the soil, the amount of sun and rain, the age of the vines and even changes in how the winemaker worked with them. These differences give each wine their variety and your ability to “spice” things up. Another way to “spice” things up is to throw out the white for white and red for red rule. This is one of my favourite ways to experiment with food and wine pairings largely due to the fact that not everyone likes the same tastes in their food. What I like may not be what you like and what you like may not be what your best friend likes. Here is an example to illustrate what I am talking about. Let us take a look at Roast Turkey for just a moment. The natural pairing would be an oaked Chardonnay, preferably in French oak instead of American oak. Now, how would you “spice” things up to make that Roast Turkey dinner even more interesting. Well, here is a combination that I always recommend to friends and family around Thanksgiving time – Baco Noir or Cabernet Franc. There are even a couple of wineries that do a blending of these two grapes - EastDell does their version in every vintage while Willow Springs will do one every now and then.

On the other hand, there is no denying how great a steak tastes with a Bordeaux blend or a nice Chianti. One important thing to keep in mind when matching a Chianti with your next steak is that you do not want a vintage that is too young or too old. The best one to aim for would be anywhere between three and five years as anything under three years old would be weak, under developed and quite possibly tannic. At the other end of the scale, any Chianti much older than five years might be too mellow to pair well with a hearty, robust steak.

As you can see, there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to matching a wine with the food that you are serving. It is very much a game of try and see, but if you like to experiment it can be a very exciting game. Each type of grape has certain flavours and aromas that it will typically impart. However, that can vary from country to country, even region to region, and is affected by the weather, the soil and even the winemakers influence.

Price determines the quality

Out of all the wine myths I have ever heard, the idea that the more expensive a wine is the better it will taste is the one that will always make me shake my head in bewilderment and laugh all at the same time. The truth is that absolutely nothing could be further from the truth – for a very wide variety of reasons. The first reason behind this is the simple fact that everyone’s tastes are different. While some people’s tastes may run towards the more expensive, high end wines like Cristal Champagne that is close to $500 a bottle, there are just as many people who prefer the simple, uncomplicated tastes of Baby Duck, which currently comes in at under $7.00 a bottle. I remember the first time I had Baby Duck. I was working in Algonquin Park and my friend Cassandra, who thoroughly enjoyed this wine, said that I absolutely had to try it. So I did try it and, at the time, did enjoy it. However, not long after that point, I tried a different wine and enjoyed it more than I enjoyed Baby Duck. Now, although I found a different wine that I enjoyed, my friend Cassandra still enjoys a glass of Baby Duck every now and then. There is nothing wrong with that – it is simply a difference between our taste buds. Since our taste buds are, essentially, unique to each of us, there are always going to be differences between what one person likes and the next person likes. If you were to look at my wine collection over the years, you would see wines ranging from DeSousa Wine Cellars Vidal Blanc, which sells at $9.95 a bottle all the way up to bottles of icewine that sell for more than $100 each.

Another thing to keep in mind is the economics within the country where the wine was made. When it comes to North American wineries, the costs associated to make a bottle of wine are much higher here than in, for example, Georgia, which is one of the former U.S.S.R. countries. We will continue to use Georgia as an example of an international country to illustrate these differences and the first difference – possibly the most visible – is the cost of labour. Here in Canada, we have a minimum wage and, in the province of Ontario, that minimum wage has been steadily increasing over the last five years. However, in Georgia, where more than 30% of the labour force is unemployed, the cost of labour is significantly lower than it would be here in Ontario. When you are a winery that insists on hand picking along with the significant amount of manual labour, the cost of making a bottle of wine can significantly increase when the governments require you to pay your employees at a certain level. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that Ontario, or even Canada, abolishes the minimum wage as we do not want to become a third world country but, with all other factors being equal, the cost of labour could make that bottle of wine that costs under $10 in Georgia even more in Ontario. The wine in the bottle will taste just as good wherever it came from but the cost of doing business has resulted in the difference in prices. Aside from the labour costs, you also need to look at other costs associated with wine production including land costs, taxes, equipment, transportation and many others. In terms of land costs, depending on where a winery decides to plant its grapes in the province of Ontario will greatly influence the price they pay for the land. After a brief analysis of the different agricultural properties listing on various real estate sites, you can see a range of anywhere between $2000 and $150000 per acre. In order to get a winery license, you need a minimum of four acres of planted grapes so, depending on where you decide to grow your grapes you could be looking at anywhere between ten thousand and three quarters of a million dollars just for the land alone. We still have to factor in the cost of the vines we are going to plant plus any equipment we are going to use to plant those vines and the equipment required to make the wine once the grapes are ready. When it comes to the vines, there are plenty of options as to where the winemaker can buy them from but a large portion of the decision is dictated by what is well suited to the land where the grapes will be planted. Just as an example, in the Niagara region of Ontario, which has recently gone through the process of creating sub-appellations, there are a wide variety of soil types and given the fact that a lot of the wineries there have multiple vineyards in a variety of locations within the Niagara Peninsula, the type of vines that will work in one sub-appellation may not necessarily thrive in another sub-appellation. Depending on what vines will work in each soil type, a winemaker may have to buy his or her vines from a variety of nurseries which results in a wide variety of prices he or she will pay for the vines that will be planted.

It would be very easy to assume that a bottle of wine that costs less than $10 will not taste good but depending on the country of origin plus the personal preferences of those who will be drinking that particular bottle of wine, this may just not be the case. As I mentioned earlier in this section, my wine collection ranges from bottles that are $9.95 a bottle all the way up to $150 a bottle. Each wine is in my collection for a reason and, if I did not enjoy it, I would not have bought it. If you enjoy a glass of Baby Duck every now and then, by all means, feel free to buy it and enjoy it. After all, just because a bottle of wine has a $100 price tag on it, that does not necessarily mean you will enjoy it. You may not like the flavours, you may find it bitter or it may be too complicated for whatever occasion you are drinking it with.

Since this blog is getting rather lengthy, those are all the myths we’ll discuss today. If you have a wine myth you want debunked, feel free to leave a comment here and I’ll address it in a future blog. Some of the myths I already plan to explore in the next blog entry are wine diamonds (wine crystals), Tetrapac wines, rose wines – good or bad, white wine does not age, and the one that I find the most funny – the larger the punt the better the wine.
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