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Old Wines' Tales


* Red wine shouldn't be served at room temperature.

* Some people do get headaches from red wine.

* Glassware does make a difference in your appreciation of wine.

* If you've never had a reaction to the sulfur in wine before this, you're not likely to now.

These are just a few short answers to questions I get asked all the time about wine, a beverage about which there must be more myth and legend than fact.

Maybe wine producers' desire to mystify wine has generated some of these myths, but whatever the reason, a large percentage of the public blithely repeats old wives' (or old marketers') tales about wine that are simply not true. Here are a few of the more common statements I've heard in the last couple of years, along with comments:

Ever since they started adding sulfur to wine, I've had a bad reaction to it.

Sulfur dioxide has been used in the wine-making process for hundreds of years to protect wine from spoiling. What's new is the relatively recent federal law requiring a "contains sulfites" statement on bottles of wine. Actually, wine sulfite levels are far lower today than they were before labels were required.

A few producers do not add sulfites to their wines and may gain approval to release wine without the statement, but even then the wines do contain trace amounts since sulfites are natural byproducts of fermentation. Doctors say the small amount of sulfites in wine (generally 50 parts per million or fewer) is a danger only to asthmatics.

Other than sulfur, there are no chemicals added to California wine, though some may remember scandals in the mid-1980s, when some wines in Austria and Italy--wines that were never exported--were contaminated by chemicals. Winemakers worldwide do use such clarifying agents as diatomaceous earth, isinglass, egg whites and gelatin to remove solids from wine, but they are removed from the wine before it is bottled.

There is no such thing as a "red wine headache." People get headaches when they drink too much, no matter what they drink.

Actually, scientists do think there may be something to this talk of people getting headaches from red wine but not from white. The odd thing is that scientists have not been able to pin down just what chemical triggers this headache reaction.

Dr. Herbert Kaufman at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco has done research in this area, and he says he doesn't believe the problem is linked to the histamines in red wine, as an early theory had it. Still, he says, those who routinely get headaches after drinking red wine may be able to prevent it by taking an aspirin or an ibuprofen tablet 30 minutes before consuming wine.

Mixing your drinks can cause more of a hangover than sticking to one thing.

Not exactly, but close. Sparkling wine (usually served as an aperitif) followed by table wine and then Port is a dangerous regimen unless it takes place over many hours and with loads of water and food. The carbon dioxide in sparkling wine plus the brandy used to fortify Port can add to the normal alcohol intake of table wine and create more of a headache the morning after.

Doctors say that the main causes of discomfort after consuming any alcoholic beverage are the amount of alcohol consumed, how long it takes to consume it, and whether it's consumed with food or without. To avoid problems, they suggest that you space consumption over time and always consume food with an alcoholic beverage.

It's a good idea to eat something such as pasta or crackers before taking that first sip of anything.

Red wine helps ward off heart attacks.

This statement is true but it doesn't tell the whole story.

Numerous scientific studies in the last 20 years strongly indicate that moderate drinkers (one to two drinks per day) have a lower risk of heart disease, and a study from Cornell University linked red wine to an increase in the high-density lipoproteins (HDL, the "good" cholesterol) because of the presence of the chemical resveratrol, which is more often found in red wine than in white wine.

Dr. Leroy Creasy at Cornell's Department of Fruit and Vegetable Science, which did the study and discovered resveratrol in wine, says red Bordeaux had the highest levels of resveratrol, a chemical manufactured by plants as part of an anti-fungal mechanism.

Creasy says resveratrol seems to be developed in the plant when it is under stress, and some Chardonnays (notably those from New York state) are high in resveratrol, presumably because New York vines "are under much more disease pressure" before harvest.

Creasy and his researchers have been unable to discover why some red wines are low in resveratrol and why some are high.

Water glasses are just fine for wine. That's the way it's served in some Italian and French cafes.

Fine wine served this way doesn't make for a very rewarding experience.

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