In his book, ‘Making Sense of Wine,” writer Matt Kramer demolished many of the myths which surround wine, ideas that have a long tradition and which most of us still observe. If you can find a copy of this valuable book first published in the late eighties, get it. The information there will make you more comfortable with the subject and will put you more than one-up on all the amateur experts who’ve made wine drinking more of a chore than a pleasure. You might even win a few bets.
One of the major myths that Kramer exploded was the long held precept that wine must be stored on its side to protect the cork. Kramer cited certain Italian wineries which keep old wines upright, and a test of sparkling wines stored vertically and horizontally for two years with no effect on wine quality. I go along with the research, but being a traditionalist, my wines remain on their belly. But I won’t be so concerned when I do find a bottle that I like displayed standing up in a retail store. If it is upright, it won’t be there long enough for anything to happen.
Another shibboleth that needs fracturing is the effect of light on wine. We’ve all been told to keep wine in dark places for fear of damage from light. That could be true if you’re talking about damaging ultra-violet rays from sunlight, or a super halogen bulb right on top of the bottles, but artificial light, Kramer points out, is hardly strong enough to affect a wine. Most wine bottles are tinted to weaken light anyway. Again, I agree with and salute Kramer’s research, but I’m not about to leave the lights on in my cellar.
One more point from Kramer’s research before I add a few of my own. We’ve all been warned that a cellar should be humid, at about 55 percent to 90% humidity. Nonsense Humidity goes back to traditional storage in damp, dark cellars. It was necessary then because most wine was stored in wood, which is porous and permits evaporation. It is important when wine is stored in barrels, which is why many California wineries are burrowing into the earth. Rutherford Hill Winery, for instance, was one of the early “tunnelers,” and spent $1.5 million for sub-surface storage in the early eighties. The winery figured that saved them as many as 3,500 cases of wine a year that might have been lost to evaporation and that ‘found wine” paid the cost of the tunnels in seven years. But doesn’t high humidity keep a cork moist? Take a good look at that bottle. It’s got a tightly compressed cork jammed into a narrow opening and shielded by impermeable wax, tin, aluminum or plastic. Humidity is just not going to get past all that protection. You need humidity only when you’re storing wine in barrels, which precious few of us do these days.
No, despite these long-held beliefs, a steady, cool temperature and an absence of direct sunlight are the two elements needed for wine storage. Wide swings in temperature in a short period can make a wine mature-and oxidize-long before its time, so do try to keep heat levels at a decent norm. Cold retards aging, which is why some people put opened wine in a refrigerator, even in the freezer for thawing later. Several wine authorities regularly freeze open bottles and report no change when they’ve been reopened and brought back to room temperature. I don’t recommend it, but it can be done.
Let’s knock down those strict rules about red and whites and the proper food matches. Writer Alex Bespaloff once had a phone answering message which pronounced the dictum: “when in doubt, use red wine with meat and white wine with fish.” These days, that is just a guideline and I doubt that Alex obeyed that maxim 100% himself, since he knew only too well that in areas where certain wines predominate, Germany with its whites and Bordeaux with its reds, people enjoy the wines they have with beef or seafood, with little regard to color. Reds like Pinot Noir go very well with certain fish dishes and the Alsatians, as well as their German cousins across the Rhine, have no trouble mixing sausages and sauerbrauten with Riesling or Gewurztraminer. Trust your wine steward or trust your own taste.
That brings up one more troubling idea about wine. Iam frequently asked “what is the best wine or what is your favorite wine? There is no best wine. Gallo’s Hearty Burgundy, for example, has always been a superb example of good drinkable wine at very low cost and it’s always great with a rustic meal or picnic. But it’s not Chateau Petrus or Domaine Romanee-Conti. The best wine is the wine you like, no matter what price you pay. If you’ve enjoyed a $5.95 special that fits your taste and your pocketbook, remember its name, buy in quantity before it disappears and be proud to serve it. The best buys in regional wines, whether from Oregon or the Finger Lakes of New York, are often blends with no grape name, but are proprietary labels crafted by skilled winemakers. Again, it’s your taste that counts and don’t be swayed by concerns over what is right. You’re more right than anybody else.
by Morton Hochstein