Myth Busting

Every area of human endeavor has its own legacy of mythopoeia (Mythmaking), where stories accrete around the changing character of human action and accumulated knowledge. Myths and stories are the way human beings make sense of that which they don’t understand, or things they long to put into proper context. In modern western society, we think of ourselves as terribly advanced and skeptical — well informed and shrewd enough to know the difference between fairy stories and the hard reality of the Way Things Work.

But are we really that clever? Up until 150 years ago, nobody knew why grape juice lost its sweetness and turned into wine. The English word for yeast was “godisgood,” which was less a noun describing Saccharomyces cerevisae (the yeast of baking, brewing and winemaking) than it was an orison and a thanksgiving for the infinite mystery of god — who wanted people to be happy, so he took care of the transformation. Just 20 years ago, everyone worked as hard as they could to exclude oxygen from wines to preserve freshness and fruit. Now we work even harder to micro-oxygenate the same wines, to instill structure and tannin, and to prevent color loss. Every time we think of a new question, the answer turns out to be not just “yes” and “no” at the same time, but “maybe” as well!

Consumer winemakers have been around as long as there have been farmers with grapes or any sort of folks with sugary fermentables and a thirst. They evolved traditions, folk wisdoms, timely sayings and canny observations, many of them shrewd and based on good practices, others complete blather based on ignorance of the scientific method and faulty observations. But rather than swallow conventional wisdom or throw the baby out with the bathwater, the middle ground of looking for the truth in traditional practices can teach us not only some valuable winemaking techniques, but also give us some insight into the history of winemaking.

Bark at the Moon?

The genesis of this article was a question about the old saw regarding racking your wine under the clear light of the full moon — or was it the new moon? There are ethnic traditions that swear by both phases, each with equal vehemence. Most do talk about the moons in late winter or early spring, when the moon is farther away from the earth than it is in summer. And it’s not as though people have only recently been following the phases of the moon. The earliest lunar calendar was discovered in cave paintings in Lascaux, France. Dating back fifteen thousand years, it showed the phases of the moon with dots representing the days between full moons.

WineMaker’s editorial board wondered if this had basis in fact — was it done to avoid tides, which could roil the wine and bring sediment back into suspension? Or was it about racking during an extremely low tide, so the “forces of gravity” could pull the sediment to the bottom of the barrel? Or is it some mysterious force of the moon, penetrating the wine and increasing the flavor and aroma?

The answer is none of the above. The gravitational influence of the moon does indeed have a profound influence on the tides, and at certain times of the year they are much higher and lower than at other times. But as anyone who has put a glass of water on the nightstand will note, it doesn’t affect volumes much smaller than a decent ocean or a very large lake. Also, the measurable force of gravity doesn’t change physical behavior on a macro-scale — meaning that in order for gravitational pull to hold wine sediment down on the bottom of a barrel, it would have to exert a force significant enough to be easily perceived. Since the cellar masters weren’t flattened to the bottom of their tanks like so many wine-sodden pancakes, neither was the sediment in the wine compressed in any way.

Searching reveals that there are some compelling reasons for thinking about wine during the phases of the moon in the new year. Culturally, many Pagan traditions ranging from Norse to Wiccan and even Judean mysticism feature ceremonies offering wine and other goods of the harvest during full moon times, to encourage fertility and show thanks for a bountiful harvest.

From a practical winemaking standpoint, three or four months after harvest, counting by moons, is a pretty good time to be doing a clarifying rack on barrels of the last vintage. But if there isn’t any evidence that supports moon-phase racking, why do people do it? Partly out of a nod to those old pagan traditions. (Heck, we still say “gesundheit” when people sneeze, in case their soul shoots out of their nose and is stolen by evil spirits!) But also partly because of an eminently practical side-effect of waiting for the clear light of the moon (whether full or new).

Very clear nights in winter are symptomatic of high-pressure weather systems. When the moon’s phase can be clearly seen through limpid skies, the barometric pressure is high. Barometric pressure is the pressure exerted by the weight of the column of air above a given point. Generally speaking, when the barometric pressure is high, the air is sinking, usually resulting in fair weather. When the barometric pressure is low or falling, air is rising, usually resulting in cloudy skies and precipitation. For winemakers, when the barometric pressure is high, that means the weight of the air is pressing more firmly against everything — including their wine. Under this pressure, dissolved carbon dioxide (CO2) gas leftover from the fermentation process is crushed and squeezed, so that bubbles do not form in the liquid or in the lees below. If the pressure were low or falling the action of the bubbles could stir lees sediment back into suspension, making the wine cloudy and defeating the purpose of racking.

Note also that new winemakers will occasionally see their wine begin mysteriously “refermenting” after a few weeks in the carboy. A quick check with a hydrometer will show that it is in fact unmoved from terminal gravity and merely out-gassing trapped CO2 under the influence of a cloudy day’s lowered barometric pressure.

While it’s actually tangential to the phase of the moon, there is still a slim connection to reality for moon-based racking. But what about other winemaking myths and traditions? A survey of home winemakers turned up a few juicy ones, including some that have a little less connection with reality.

Free the Sulfites

It’s rarely worth starting a discussion on sulfites and human health. Sulfites are almost totally benign, but some people are unwilling to accept this or the science that backs it up. And so, many people want to make a sulfite-free wine. The thing to remember is that sulfites occur in all fermented products, as a by-product of yeast metabolism. Even if a wine is made with unsulfured grapes and none is added to the must or the fermentation, it will still always contain sulfite. Wines without sulfites added contain between 6 and 40 ppm of sulfite — less than that in most wines made with added sulfites, but still present in non-trivial quantities. So, the only way to truly avoid sulfites is to stop drinking wine!

Professional Winemaking is Glamorous, Cool and Financially Rewarding

Some people who make wine on a commercial basis certainly are cool, and glamorous, and seem to be getting along in the world, but most of these folks own the vineyards and were rich before they started. The hard truth for 99% of all the people who make the wine is that it’s a challenging way to make a living. Ninety percent of the job is janitorial — cleaning tanks, hoses, barrels, floors, pumps and equipment on a constant basis — working around the clock during harvest and snatching meals and sleep when they can. Rather than shopping for Ferraris, most winemakers are hoping for a really comfortable pair of rubber boots.

Natural is Not Better

This stems from the millennial traditions of pre-Pasteur winemaking in Europe. Before his research in the 1850s, grapes were simply crushed into vats and fermentations started spontaneously, driven by the indigenous yeast clinging to the grapeskins. To some modern winemakers, this seems like a more honest or natural way to approach things, and they eschew the addition of cultured yeast. This may work fine in the old country, in traditional grape-growing regions, but it has a real difficulty in North America.

In European vineyards, many areas have been growing grapes and making wine for centuries — in some cases for thousands of years, in the same areas, on the same land. When fermentations were finished and the grapes were pressed, they didn’t take them to the garbage dump (there being no such thing). Instead the grape skins, pulp and yeast were composted and returned to the vineyards as fertilizer.

Over time, the yeast that were able to breed fastest and ferment the most alcohol tended to prosper, so they were the ones that got returned to the vineyard. After a few generations of this type of selection, the vineyards would be saturated with a strong culture of well-adapted yeast and the cycle would continue.

In North America, vinifera grapes were not successfully planted in any quantity until the 19th Century, so the yeast found here have not had the millennia of adaptation seen in European vineyards. When yeast companies and biologists go looking for new strains of yeast that deliver the flavor profile associated with a specific wine region, they travel right into that region and sample the local vineyards and wineries, culturing the yeast cells found in the area to make up their little packets of beige powder.

It is indeed possible to allow an indigenous yeast fermentation with North American grapes, but the results are not necessarily predictable. Typically, spontaneous fermentations proceed slower and the wine may not reach dryness. Such fermentations may require a lot more intervention than they would if the winemaker had chosen to sprinkle a packet of
cultured yeast.

Wines Needs to “Breathe” Since wine doesn’t have lungs, spiracles or gills, breathing isn’t really an option anyway. But does exposing every wine to oxygen for a period of time before service improve them? Not necessarily. First, just pulling a cork out of a bottle does very little. It’s like trying to get some fresh air by sticking a soda straw out through a hole in a wall — you just can’t get enough oxygen exchanged through that little opening. In order to properly transfer oxygen into the wine, it needs to be decanted into a vessel that has a configuration that exposes a large surface area — about the size of a dinner plate — to outside air.

Second, it’s usually only tough, tannic, robust red wines that significantly benefit from decanting, or wines that are a little bit rocky from being confined in a bottle. Hard young wines will soften their tannins and express a bit more aromas after an hour’s decanting, and if a wine has a bit of trapped gas, a whiff of hydrogen sulfide (rotten-egg bottle stink) or a tiny bit too much sulfite, airing it out can do a world
of good.

However, older reds may fall apart under such treatment, losing their fragile fragrances. Some of the volatile compounds that make up delicate aromas can be lost in only minutes, so decanting should be saved for stinky or young reds.

Whites rarely respond in any net positive fashion to decanting, plus it’s difficult to keep a wide-bodied decanter upright in an ice bucket.

Homemade Wine is All Bad, Sour Stuff . . . And it Can Even Make You Blind

Unfortunately this comes up as a myth amongst otherwise normally intelligent people. Some of them are conflating consumer-produced wine with moonshine or counterfeited alcohol derived from dubious sources. The truth is that no matter what it tastes or looks like, wine fermented in food-grade containers will always be safer to drink than tap water (assuming you don’t drink enough to feel the negative effects of too much alcohol). No pathogenic (disease-causing) organism can live in wine due to its low pH and high alcohol content. For most of human history, and up until the medical revolution of the 20th Century wine was the only tool in the physicians cabinet. It was an antiseptic for wounds, a pain-killer for injury and surcease for troubled minds.

Tarring all consumer-produced wines as sour or inferior does have a basis in unfortunate reality. We all have an uncle or a friend-of-a-friend who makes eye-wateringly bad dandelion wine, or poorly vented grape wines with “unique” character. But just because you’ve had a bad oyster once in your life doesn’t mean that they’re all bad. Modern winemakers have access to a vast amount of knowledge, tools and scientific processes that let them make award-winning wines on a
consistent basis.

Rack Early and Rack Often!

One of the unfortunate urges that beginner winemakers get is the unseemly desire to fiddle with their wine. Even when the wine is perfectly adjusted, finished fermenting, fully stable and now needs only time to show its glory, they want to intervene.

Some sources urge winemakers to rack wine immediately off of any visible sediment to avoid H2S contamination. Since racking has the goal of separating the wine from sediments, thus leaving it clear, frequent rackings are a good way to satisfy this urge. However, in winemaking as in life, more is not always better.

In the first year of a wine’s life, four rackings is probably too many. Even red wine fermentations from grapes — which can throw very large amounts of sedimented pulp, stem material and yeast cells — only need to be racked three times to achieve decent clarity in the first year. Extra rackings should only be attempted if the wine begins to show off flavors and aromas that can be attributed to lees contact, and only then after careful analysis shows that this is the best course of action. In the words of the sage, “Don’t just do something, sit there!”

Wine Improves with Age

Wine is like a living organism. It goes through phases of “growth,” stability and decline. But some of it is best enjoyed fresh, young and zippy. A light delicate white like Trebbiano will benefit from six months to a year in the bottle, but simply doesn’t have the structure or fruit character to improve beyond a second year. The same applies for light reds like Gamay or most carbonic maceration (Beaujolais-style) wines: fresh juicy fruit characters don’t get happier with age any more than some human beings do. On the commercial side, any wine purchased for under $30 a bottle is almost certainly intended for consumption within a couple of years, and only wines in the $100+ range warrant a decade or more of age before drinking.

Sorbate Kills Yeast

Because sorbate is included in many kit wines, to be added during the fining and stabilizing process, some consumers have assumed that its purpose was to kill yeast to prevent “refermentation” in the bottle. Actually, the only practical way to kill yeast is by Pasteurization. It’s a terrifically hardy organism, and can even survive being frozen, dessicated or entombed for centuries, under the right conditions.

The actual mechanism for the action of sorbic acid (sorbate’s real name — the form sold to winemakers is a stable salt of sorbic acid, usually potassium sorbate) isn’t fully understood, but the big picture is that it prevents yeast reproduction. It’s really birth control for yeast and gram-negative microorganisms. This includes yeast, but not certain classes of spoilage
organisms like lactic acid bacteria, which is why sorbate can’t be used by itself to
stabilize wine.

So if it doesn’t kill yeast, why is it included? Because kit manufacturers recognize that there is a spectrum of expertise that will be applied to their products. Some consumers will not follow the directions or good winemaking procedures closely enough to ensure that the wine is completely stable and free of yeast and other organisms before bottling. By using sorbate, sulfite and fining agents all at the same time the wine is cleared of 99%+ of live yeast.

With sorbate in the mix, the remaining yeast can no longer breed back to “culture strength,” the point at which they switch from breeding to converting sugar to alcohol. So despite the presence of a few live yeast, the wine will remain stable and unchanged, with no fizzy bottles or sediment down the side of the bottle as it ages.

White Wine Should be
Served Cold, Red Wine at Room Temperature

While you can drink your wine at any temperature you want (a nice icy glass of Amarone, anyone?) traditional ideas about serving temperatures need a little interpretation. Drinking wine too cold can numb the palate and dumb down the flavors. Drinking it too warm can leave the tannins too soft and the alcohol unpleasantly dominant. Whites show best between 50 and 55 °F (10–13 °C), and most reds are just right between 62–65 °F (17–18 °C). There are exceptions to every rule and this rule is no exception: Champagne should be icily cold for maximum nose-tickling pleasure and very light fruity red wines like Beaujolais Nouveau or Dolcetto should be lightly chilled to enhance their snappy fruit character.

Wine and Cheese are Delicious Partners

While white wine with cheese is often inoffensive and can even attain the status of mildly pleasurable noshing, cheese is an earthy-flavored, savory, high-fat, calorie-dense food, and finding any wine that enhances it is a challenge, and finding a red wine that doesn’t get lost in a morass of fat-encapsulated tannins is too much work. If you’re searching for a serious partner for red wine snacking, try boutique chocolate — the super-premium 99% cacao chocolate bars now available are a startling (and wonderful) match to intense red wines.

Legs or “Tears” in a Wine Glass Show Good Quality

While the thickly dripping streams of wine that run down the inside of your glass after a good swirl definitely add to the visual part of the experience in enjoying wine, they really don’t tell you much about the true quality of the wine you’re drinking. In truth, wine legs are caused by the presence of ethanol in a liquid solution, and nothing else.

The reason why the legs flow down the glass is due to a surface tension phenomena known as the Marangoni effect, which is a transfer of mass due to a gradient in surface tension. Liquids with high surface tension pull more strongly on the surrounding liquid than those with low surface tension. In a non-homogenous mixture of liquids, differences in surface tension will naturally cause the liquid to flow away from regions of low surface tension. In wine, water-rich regions pull on adjacent alcohol-rich regions.

Sometimes this effect is attributed to the presence of glycerol in wine, but there isn’t enough glycerol in normal wine to show any surface tension gradient. Of course, if a winemaker adds glycerine (a different chemical from glycerol) to their wine, they can achieve the same effect, along with a metallic taste and a nasty headache.

There are many other myths about wine and winemaking, ranging from charming traditions to downright weirdness. Half the fun in making your own wine lies in understanding the traditions behind it, whether your intent is to honor them, to avoid them, or just to edify yourself on the history and lore of wine. As the famous photographer Ansel Adams said, “Myths and creeds are heroic struggles to comprehend the truth in the world.”

Tim Vandergrift is Technical Services Manager for Winexpert Limited. He can be found blogging mercilessly at www.winexpert.com/Blog.