Wine myths

HERE are some widely-held misapprehensions about wine and alcohol. Self-confessed buffs will greet most of them with a nod of recognition. Some of the points relate to general health issues but as ever, if you have any query about any aspect of your health, ask your doctor about it.


A myth still persists in some quarters that poor, cheap wines are the only ones bottled under screwcaps and that a ‘proper’ cork is a sign of a good wine. Not so. As practically every dedicated wine fan knows by now, the twist-off cap is generally a better, more reliable way to seal a wine bottle. And each year, more and more wines on our shelves are bottled that way, led by upmarket wineries in New Zealand and Australia.

Corked wine

There’s a perception that if cork is partly broken, crumbling or damaged, the wine inside will be faulty. Not necessarily.

When we say a wine is ‘corked’ we mean it’s infected with a substance named 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). Produced by fungi, it is harmless, but spoils the wine experience (especially if you’re in the habit of enjoying an occasional sniff as well as a sip) with its off-putting, dank, wet cardboard, rising damp odour. It can infest barrels or even a whole winery. But, crucially, one of the places it flourishes best is within natural cork, hence the slightly confusing word ‘corked’.

The fault was one of the impulses that drove the wine industry to turn to screwcaps.

“Single varietal wines are better than blends”

One possible source of this myth is that  some of the great traditions are single-varietal: The whites from Bourgogne/Burgundy are nothing but chardonnay, while the reds are 100% pinot noir. Also, most of the great wines from the related traditions of Germany and Alsace will contain only riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris or gewürztraminer, each in splendid isolation.

But in fact, blends are the norm right around the wine world, old and new. In part, this is hidden from view as, in most wine producing countries, a wine named say “cabernet” can contain a smaller proportion of other grapes without that being mentioned on the label.

Some of the world’s most prized wines are blends. For instance, take three classic French regions – Champagne (three grapes) Bordeaux (two in whites and three in reds) and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (13. Yes, thirteen).
Across the border in Spain, we associate the great wines of Rioja with the tempranillo grape but in general, they may also contain the beautifully perfumed garnacha (aka grenache in the south of France) and possibly also some graciano and mazuelo too.

Blends of both red and white grapes aren’t uncommon either, the most obvious example being Champagne which often pitches pinot noir and chardonnay together – most obviously in rosés, but also in white sparklers. (The colour in red wines comes solely from the red grape skins, so you can make white wine from red grapes simply by minimising the amount of time the skins remain in contact with the fermenting must).

One of the keys to blending is that each grape complements the other. For instance, in the aforementioned Bordeaux red blend, the cabernet sauvignon (broadly speaking) tends to be hard, firm and austere, and the merlot softly aromatic. That characterisation is a bit simplistic, as many single-varitals of either can offer all that. And even within Bordeaux, quite a few wines will be made from 100% of one grape or the other. Like most things in life, it depends.

One last example: One of the many great contributions quality Australian wineries have made to wine was to rediscover and promote anew the great Rhone tradition of blending shiraz  with a tiny bit of viognier – co-fermented in the same vat, or done separately and blended later. Having tried my hand at a bit of bonehead Blending 101, I am convinced the little tot of white does lift and polish the colour, scent and taste of the finished wine.


Alcohol content

There’s a perception that winemakers have been deliberately pumping more and more alcohol into wines in recent decades. Twenty years ago, practically every wine came in at 11.5% to 12.5%, while nowadays they commonly hit 13% and 14%. But in fact, underlying this upward trend is the set of interrelationships among three factors: sugar, alcohol and flavour.

The wine styles we favour nowadays are generally (1) full of ripe fruit flavour and (2) quite dry, as in low in sugar. As you know, the riper any fruit is, the more stuffed with sugar it will be. So grapes bursting with sweet juice are carted off to the winery (generally trailed by a cloud of wasps driven crack-addict crazy by that heady scent) only for most of that sugar to be fermented into lots and lots and lots of alcohol.

Winemakers all over the world have been seeking ways to make modern fruity wines without such a high payload of alcohol. However, it’s not an easy circle to square. Planting in cooler areas; harvesting grapes earlier, and using less efficient strains of yeast are among the key approaches to naturally reduce the sugar/alcohol content. These expedients could help restore the old 11% benchmark. Two wine countries – Germany and Portugal – are awash in good traditional wine styles with around 10% or 11% alcohol ABV. And semi-sweet styles, again particularly from Germany may have even less alcohol.

There have been recent attempts to produce low-alcohol wines, usually by making full strength wine and then mechanically or chemically removing that particular active ingredient. All of the ones I’ve tried are pretty poor and if you want to reduce the alcohol content you’re imbibing, you’d be better off with grape juice, or by adding water to your wine, or drinking less.

Mixing your drinks

We’ve all heard the warning: mixing the grape (wine, brandy, port, sherry) with the grain (beer, whiskey) will cause you terrible after-effects the following day. This is an attribution error of giant proportions. Hangovers are caused by alcohol.
The myth may be grounded in the circumstances the sufferer is most likely to consume both classes of drink – coincidentally involving lots of alcohol. “We went for a few drinks after work and then on to the restaurant where we had a few bottles of wine and a drop of Cognac with the coffee – oh yes and the waiter came round with flaming sambucas on the house and then we went back to the pub for more pints…”

Attributing the problem to the class of drink rather than the quantity of it is a self-deluding get-out clause.

And if I can’t appeal to your common sense, can I please appeal to your incredulity? Just suppose for a moment that each class, grape and grain, does have some magic ingredient which – even after they’ve been denatured by fermentation or distillation – cause people to feel ill when they meet. Well if that is so, please explain to me why the streets aren’t full of people staggering around groaning in pain caused by their breakfast muesli.
Certainly, loading up on a rich, superfluous overdose of nutrients could cause some queasiness, but in my view it’s likely to be infinitesimal compared to the after-effects of too much alcohol.

The deeper the punt, the better the wine

I was startled at a tasting shortly before Christmas to hear someone suggest the depth of the indentation at the base of a bottle was linked to the quality of the wine inside. I really thought that myth had died, but no.
In wine as with most things in life, the packaging very unreliable as a predictor of quality.

Imagine you are a winemaker a few decades or a century ago, making two wines – one relatively cheap, all of which will be sold and consumed within a year. Another promises to improve with age: it is dearer to produce; storing it costs money; and it’ll probably fetch a far higher price.  Yes, it makes sense to bottle the latter in a more expensive, more robust bottle – the type with the deeper punt.

So more expensive wines -> heavier bottles. That was the cause and its consequence. Bear that in mind.

Fast forward to today, and switch location to UK and Ireland. Improved quality control in glassmaking and containerised transport has greatly lessened wastage due to breakage. But more importantly, some wine traders – understanding how we routinely read cause and consequence backwards – merrily bottle cheaper mid-range wines in big, heavy, expensive bottles. It’s part of the branding of the product, and comes out of the marketing budget.

The reverse of the myth is untrue too. I’ve tasted some cracking wines from lightweight bottles with practically no punt. And also from plastic bottles, quarter bottles, and cardboard boxes or ‘bladder packs’. If they had such reliable packaging technology a thousand years ago they’d all have been using them too.

Wine is good for you
Wine is bad for you

These notions – along with variants such as ‘a glass of red wine a day is good for you’ – aren’t true and aren’t false. But they’re hopelessly, irredeemably useless and there is no evidence for either. If and when such evidence is produced, I’ll be among the first to flag it, I promise.

Yet we keep seeing apparently plausible stories suggesting one or the other. It’s only when you take the long view and see all these stories in context that the absurdity emerges. Indeed one website is devoted entirely to aggregating stories in just one newspaper in the ‘X is good for you, Y is bad for you’ genre. Last time I checked, it listed 17 recent stories that wine prevents cancer and 18 that it causes it.

There are some specific health issues – alcoholism being merely the most obvious one – regarding wine that neither I nor any other blogger can help you with, and you really should talk to your doctor if you are in any doubt. But otherwise you should be fine with moderate consumption of alcohol, along with a good varied diet, a bit of exercise, a decent night’s sleep, the company of people who care about you, a good belly laugh, a sense of proportion about the risks and opportunities that face you, the respect of your peers, etc etc…

Where was I? Oh yes. Wine.

The real issue isn’t wine at all. Nor is it science. The real problem is twofold: our natural, human tendancy to misunderstand or overinterpret data around us, which is profitably exploited by the feral wing of the media.  What’s that about? Well for a swift catch-up, I refer you again to Ben Goldacre’s demolition of the way the media wilfully misrepresents science here      it’s a five- or six-minute audio-only clip on YouTube.

In what I call the yay-boo media, the work of scientists is regularly misreported, reducing them panto heroes or villains. They’ve either discovered some magic bullet that’ll help you live longer (yay!) or are foisting some new horror on us – such as vaccinations – that’ll kill us all stone dead (boo!).

Apart from such media outlets’ mendacity, much of the problem lies is the small print, and our reluctance or inability to read it: Scientific research is phrased carefully, and stuffed with caveats and conditions. For instance, a study might demonstrate that a substance isolated from grape skins tends to have certain effects on a certain type of human cells in vitro.  And those effects, if replicated in the human body, could potentially have effects that are beneficial to the workings of a particular aspect of our metabolism. That is not communicating the same message as the half-page article headlined Study Shows Wine Protects Heart Health, illustrated by that stock shot of a woman tucking into an enormous glass of cabernet. (As an aside – you might enjoy this glance into the world of stock photography).

We have a similarly big problem understanding population lifestyle studies. For instance, a large-scale study may indeed show that, of those sampled, people who drink wine live longer than those who don’t.

But crucially that does not suggest one phenomenon (the wine) causes the other (the longevity).  A brilliant piece of research reported in the British Medical Journal in 2006 demonstrated one way that studies of wine can be confounded by other factors. Researchers in Denmark got the co-operation of some 100 supermarkets and food shops which turned over the data from 3.5 million till receipts.
Trawling through them, they discovered that drinkers in their sample who bought wine (as opposed to other forms of alcohol) were more likely to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, while those who brought other types of alcohol through the checkout were more likely to also buy snacks and fatty processed foods.

What that really tells us is something we may have guessed – for a host of reasons, people buying into home cooking tend to choose wine. That in turn may suggest why wine-drinking seems to be related to longevity.  While I certainly don’t see takeaways or snack foods as some sort of lethal poison, I do believe home cooking with fresh ingredients to be positive contributors to wellbeing – as well perhaps as suggesting an enhanced home life. And maybe that is where long life,  health and happiness can be found.

Thing is, unlike a bottle of wine, you can’t buy that lifestyle off the shelf for €8. And similarly, the Danish report doesn’t easily fit in to the yay-boo media template of a good story and so was barely mentioned in the mass media. Certainty sells, not subtlety.

‘Contains sulphites’

I believe the use and health efects of SO2 is the most widely misunderstood  issue regarding wine. Sulphites (or sulfites, the American spelling) are naturally-occurring compounds which have been used as a preservative in wine – as well as other foods such as blue cheese and dried fruit – for hundreds of years. You can take it that all wines, including those made from organically-grown grapes, contain sulphites. Oh, and your body naturally produces sulphites. They’re a group of natural, non-toxic compounds. And millions of people are drinking wine every day around the world with no problem.

Here’s my understanding: A small proportion of the population who suffer from asthma may have an adverse reaction to sulphites in the diet, but most of us seem to suffer no ill effects.

It may be technically possible to produce wines that don’t contain sulphites but they would be tremendously unstable and would perhaps more closely resemble vinegar. Put it this way –  I taste hundreds of wines every year and have yet to try, or even see, a bottle claiming to contain sulphite-free wine. On just one occasion (an informal sale akin to a Tupperware party) I did hear a winery representative wooing potential buyers by saying they didn’t use sulphites. When I queried this claim, she admitted that they did indeed use that natural harmless substance ‘but not much’. Oh dear.

The alarm suffered by some wine-drinkers is caused in part by the warning on wine bottles which screams CONTAINS SULPHITES just like that, in capitals. Given that, surely, anyone with a sulphite intolerance will know that wine always contains the stuff, I believe it’s as helpful as a warning that a tin of tomatoes CONTAINS TOMATOES.

I used to think that the warning should be scrapped entirely. A compromise could entail a requirement for wine producers to label the sulphite content as an average parts per million (ppm) at time of production. There would be understandable industry resistance to such a solution. Unlike, say, soft drinks or prepared meals, wine changes from year to year: the testing and printing costs could be prohibitive, especially to smaller producers. But either solution would be preferable to the current one which generally only serves to frighten people.

Organic wine

Some people believe that wines made from organically-grown grapes taste better, are better for you, and won’t give you a hangover. And yet – having met quite a few organic winemakers and people who sell their wines – I’ve yet to hear one of them make any of these claims.

I am emotionally drawn to organics, and am particularly persuaded by issues of sustainability, and by the notion of producers wresting power from companies that market agricultural inputs. We owe the organic movement a great deal of credit for its key role in putting food quality up the agenda in recent decades. However, I’ve yet to see any evidence of health benefits due to organic production methods.

There’s an ever-growing range of wines on the market approved by one of the various organisations certifying produce as being organic or biodynamic. In its wake comes an even larger slew of wines from producers practicing minimal intervention techniques such as ‘lutte raisonné’, many of which are organic-in-all-but-name. But by not seeking such certification are entitled to use legal insecticides and pesticides.

To the last and most easily demolished point, hangovers. Alcohol is the component that causes hangovers. So a wine made from organically-grown grapes will cause a hangover every bit as powerful as the non-organic type: Falling from an oak tree will not hurt any less than falling from a breeze-block wall. ♦

It’s hardly surprising that a psychoactive, potentially addictive and highly profitable substance should trail a whole slew of mythology in its wake.


2 Responses

  1. […] By the way, you may be concerned that I’m mixing beer and wine on this blog, and believe that grape and grain should never be consumed together. Well, I’m convinced the reputed ill-effects of so doing belong firmly in the realm of wine myths. […]

  2. […] If you’re interested in finding out more, Dr Ben Goldacre writes about nonsense science reporting in the media. And here is my guide to wine myths. […]

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