Jancis Robinson busts common myths, plus the reds and whites best served at the same temperature.
All wine improves with age.
It is certainly true that virtually all ‘fine wines’, wines retailing at £20 a bottle and more, are worth keeping for several or many years, and sometimes – particularly in the case of vintage port – many decades so that their many components – particularly the various phenolics responsible for the flavour, colour and structure – can combine to form many more complex entities resulting in a much subtler flavour.
But fine wine comprises only a very small proportion of the almost 40,000 million bottles-worth of wine made each year – certainly less than 5%. The great volume of wine produced is much more ordinary stuff that is sold on the mass market in supermarkets and the like. This sort of wine is designed to be ready to drink as soon as it rattles off the bottling (or boxing) line. Most of it – especially pink wines, then whites, then reds in general – actually declines with age. After a year or so in bottle (and a few months in a box) many wines retailing below £10 a bottle start to lose their fruit, freshness and appeal.
Wine is improved by ‘breathing’.
The habit of pulling the cork out of a bottle and letting it stand open for an hour or so before serving evolved in an era when the processes of handling and bottling wine were very much less sophisticated than they are now. Far more chemical additions were made to keep wine stable and often the space between the wine and the cork was filled with rather nasty-smelling odours. The purpose of ‘breathing’ was to allow this ‘bottle stink’ to evaporate.
You will be wasting much of what you have paid for if you serve full-bodied whites too cool
Today, chemical additions are generally kept to a minimum – often just a tiny amount of the antioxidant sulphur dioxide that has been used since Roman times to preserve fruit juices, dried fruit and wine among other things. Bottle stink is a thing of the past. And leaving a bottle open exposes such a small area of wine, just that of the bottle neck, to air that there will be hardly any interaction between it and the wine.
If you think your young wine needs aerating to accelerate the ageing process, open it and pour it vigorously into another container – a jug or decanter – exposing it to as much oxygen as possible.
Legs or tears, the transparent ‘tears’, down the inside of a wine glass are an indication of quality.
Although the ‘tears’, or ‘legs’, of a wine have been discussed by self-appointed wine experts for decades, it was as recently as 2009 that a precise scientific explanation for the phenomenon was established. They have nothing to do with viscosity and only indirectly relate to alcoholic strength. At play are differences in surface tension and interfacial tension between air, glass and wine. The full (600-word) explanation is given in The Oxford Companion to Wine (4th edition only) and, online, on JancisRobinson.com.
You always make money if you buy wine as futures.
If only this were true. The inter-trade wine trading platform Liv-ex analyses the Bordeaux fine wine market every year and shows that, of the 10 vintages from 2005, only 2005, 2007and 2012 have so far delivered returns for investors, while prices for the celebrated 2009s and 2010 have plummeted particularly spectacularly.
All whites should be served considerably cooler than all reds.
If you want white wine simply to refresh you, then by all means chill it severely – down to 10 to 12°C. (Below 8°C you are unlikely to smell anything much.) But if it is full bodied – a serious white burgundy, top quality Chardonnay or Rhône white, for instance – you will be wasting much of what you have paid for if you serve it too cool. The fuller the wine, the more warmth and encouragement it needs to give off its flavour (which is sensed mainly as aroma), and this means not serving it too cold.
And the lighter bodied the red – one that is under 13% alcohol – the better it takes to being served cellar-cool, at about 15 rather than 18°C. I serve red and white burgundy at more or less the same temperature, for instance.
One factor other than the amount of body, or alcohol, comes into play here. Tannins, the chewy, cheek-drying preservatives found in high concentrations in many young red wines in particular, are accentuated at low temperatures. So if you want to make a tannic young red taste a little softer and gentler, serve it slightly warmer than you would serve a mature version of the same wine – up to 20°C.
But note that over 20°C wines start to taste soupy and lose their precision. I always chill bottles of red before serving them outdoors on a hot day.
The heavier the bottle, the better the wine.
Bottle weight is pure marketing. Bordeaux first growths come in sensible rather than bodybuilder bottles.
Jancis Robinson OBE, MW is a British wine critic, journalist and editor of wine literature. She currently writes a weekly column for the Financial Times, and writes for her website JancisRobinson.com.