There are no absolutes when it comes to wine, and the magic of turning fruit into alcoholic bliss only serves to surround this science-based business with mythological status. In fact, untruths about wine are as common as gossip about Kim K’s booty and Gisele Bunchen’s workout routine. We’ve all heard that the “rules” of wine enjoyment—only with dinner, from fancy glassware, and with certain foods—are nonsense, but winemaking myths are often harder to uncover. Here, the truth behind four common misconceptions.
Organic wines are better for you.
Do you consider copper organic? When it comes to winemaking, the USDA gives copper its organic stamp of approval along with nearly 70 other additives that most humans would never eat nor spray in our backyard gardens. Since many of these approved additives—like tartaric acid found in many fruits—exist in nature, the government says it’s OK to add laboratory-constructed versions to wines.
Much like labels on meat, the terminology on wine labels can also be confusing and inaccurate, leading us to think we’re buying earth-friendly bottles. Phrases like “organic” or “made with organic grapes,” for example, often indicate the vineyard was farmed organically, but chemicals abound in the winery. Sometimes, these could be simple nutrients that help fermentation move more quickly, or complex synthetics like MegaPurple and acids that modify a wine’s color or flavor dramatically.
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What’s a drinker to do? If you’re committed to drinking fewer chemicals, seek out wines from small producers or look for a seal from the USDA or Demeter on the bottle. It also never hurts to ask your local retailer about natural or low-chemical options—natural and truly organic winemakers are proud of this stuff!
Printed alcohol percentages on wine labels are accurate.
The ABV printed on wine bottles is more like a guideline than a rule. In fact, the TTB allows wineries a variance of up to 1.5 percent for wines below 14% ABV, and 1 percent for wines above 14% ABV. This means a bottle labelled 13.0% ABV could be anywhere from 11.5% ABV to 14% ABV—a huge range that could indicate sweetness or a seriously powerful wine. Originally, this wiggle room was designed to allow small wineries lacking accurate technology to produce and sell their wines legally. Today, it allows wine marketers to make wines seem “lighter” or “fresher” to consumers by understating alcohol levels, or to make them appear “stronger” or “fuller” by providing a higher number. More interestingly, it often allows producers to pay lower taxes, since alcoholic tax levels rise as alcohol increases.
Oak flavor comes from barrels.
Oak barrels are a critical element of winemaking, and often the key to adding delicious, smoky or vanilla-scented complexity to our favorite wines. However, barrel-aging isn’t the only way to add oaky love to wine, and for inexpensive bottles in the sub- $20 range, it’s rarely the most efficient technique.
Beyond adding flavor and aroma, oak barrels help wine age by allowing tiny amounts of air to mingle with the wine, a critical stage in the development of fine wines meant to last decades. For quaffable, drink-me-now bottles the investment in traditional barriques—which cost upwards of $600 each—simply isn’t cost effective. Instead, oak byproducts offer wineries the same flavor effect at a fraction of the cost. Oak chips, which look and smell like garden mulch, can be added to wines (essentially in a giant tea bag) to add oak flavor. Similarly, oak staves can be inserted into tanks to add flavor. In this case, imagine a deconstructed barrel inside a tank the size of ten barrels. Voilà a wine with ten percent new oak, no barrels required. Liquid oak additives also exist, but are far less popular than oak staves or chips.
Sulfite-free wines won’t give you a hangover
There’s a reason all wine is required to say “contains sulfites”: these chemical compounds are an inherent part of wines—organic, biodynamic or indifferent. In short, “sulfite free” wines simply don’t exist. Anti-sulfur advocates are really searching for “low-sulfite” wines, such as some made by natural winemakers who don’t add any sulfur during the winemaking process. Conventional winemakers add this element to wines because it is a fantastic preservative, and prevents the juice from oxidizing prematurely in bottle or tank. But they don’t cause hangovers that instead comes from a winning trifecta of dehydration, low blood sugar, and fatigue.