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In the Blogosphere: How Wine Sulfite Regulations Impact Winemakers

Vinted on January 20, 2008 binned in organic wine, wine health, winemaking

The wine sulfites battle rages on.

Some of you will recall that the Dude has been commenting on the topics of sulfites in wine, as well as biodynamic and organic wines.

Jason Haas over at Tablas Creek Vineyard has posted a great article on how the widely misunderstood fear of wine sulfite allergies (& “wine headaches”) has combined with overly-cautious (and poorly-constructed) U.S. wine regulations to cause winemakers unnecessary grief…

What U.S. Sulfite / Organic Regulations Mean for Winemakers
In a nutshell, it seems that the U.S. regulations regarding sulfite use for wines that are to be labeled ‘organic’ have a big negative impact on potential quality of the wine. That’s because some use of sulfites in higher quality wines is inevitable – otherwise the finished wine could be too unstable.

According to the Guidelines for Labeling: Wine with Organic References from the U.S. Dept. of Treasury – Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms:

SULFITE STATEMENT
“100% Organic” products cannot use added sulfi tes
in production. Therefore, since no add ed sulfi tes
are present in the fi nished product, the label may
not require a sulfi te statement. In these cases, a lab
analysis is necessary to verify that the wine contains
less than 10 ppm of sulfites.

Less than 10 ppm of sulfites… hmm… good luck! I wrote about the challenges of achieving such a low level of sulfites in wine before. Those winemakers that chase after the pot-o’-gold at the end of the marketing rainbow may make “organic” wines, but that will need to be done without much thought to the ultimate quality of the wine. Those winemakers that truly care about quality – well, they end up being discouraged from even trying to make wines that would be labeled “organic” by the U.S. government.

What U.S. Sulfite / Organic Regulations Mean for You
And who suffers the most – wine consumers. Because the average person is likely to a) be scared off because of the required sulfite warning labels on wines, often believing (mistakenly) that there last ‘wine headache’ was caused by sulfties, and b) assuming (mistakenly) that wines labeled as ‘organic’ are healthier and of higher quality, consumers can have a poor experience tasting a nasty unstable wine that is labeled ‘organic’ but sucks – and possibly get turned off to wine altogether because of that experience!

[WARNING: SARCASM] Gee… what’s not to love about this scenario? Besides everything, I mean… [END SARCASM]

Don’t Get Suckered into Following the ‘Organic’ Marketing Bandwagon
Unfortunately, it means that we wine lovers still need to have our wits about us when shopping for wine. Stay sharp, and don’t assume that a wine labeled as ‘organic’ is better for you or is higher quality, or contains no sulfites. Higher quality wines will contain sulfites and probably will NOT be labeled organic – but they will taste better, and in the grand scheme of things will be better for you, will provide better value for money, and will give you a better wine tasting experience!

Cheers!

Does This Wine Make Me Look Fat?: How To Drink Wine While You’re on a Diet

Vinted on January 9, 2008 binned in best of, wine health, wine tips

Dieting – how do I love thee? Let me count the ways… OK, DONE!

No one really enjoys dieting, and while we may be of the epicurean mindset, even us wine lovers need to count the calories once in a while. To get our New Year’s resolutions off to the right start, I’ve put together some information for wine lovers who might be wondering how wine factors into their their dieting plans…


All alcoholic beverages have calories. This includes wine. Most wines contain a very small amount of sugars – a few grams – even wines that are totally “dry.” Very sweet dessert wines contain a bit more, but overall this will still be less than 10 grams on average. You may even find a small amount of Sodium (about 1% the recommended daily amount) and even carbs (around 5 grams, or about 2% DV). But those all contribute a very small amount of calories to the overall wine experience.

A Wine’s calories are largely a factor of alcohol content. Alcohol content accounts for 80% or more of the calories in a wine. A typical glass of wine – about 4 to 5 fl oz -
will contain about 100 calories. That’s the bad news. The good news – none of the calories are from fat (hey, there’s a bright side to everything!).

Wines with Less Alcohol Have Fewer Calories – but Not by Much. If you want to get more specific, a general rule of thumb (as published on Wineintro.com) is that this formula will give you the approximate calories for any specific glass of wine: 1.6 x percentage x oz in glass = total calories. So, if you pour yourself a 5oz glass of modest Italian white (say, 12% alcohol), you’re looking at 1.6 x 12 x 5oz = 96 calories. A big ol’ honkin’ glass of powerful California Zinfandel at 15% alcohol would be 1.6 x 15 x 5oz = 120 calories. Not a huge difference, but could be significant enough for you to change your wine choice at dinner, if you’re expecting to have more than one glass but are trying to watch your weight.

If You’re on a Diet, Drink Wine in Moderation. This one seems obvious, since in effect wine is contributing the the dreaded “liquid calories” (like soda) that most dieters try to avoid. But it’s a lot tougher than you’d think. Restaurant pours of wine seldom adhere to the 4-5oz average, and some restaurants may pour you a glass nearly double that amount. Which means that glass of big ol’ honkin’ CA Zinfandel is really more like 240 calories. If you’re on a diet, tread carefully when eating out.

Don’t Binge. Another seemingly obvious recommendation, but consider this: drinking alcoholic beverages is proven to relax your inhibitions, which in turn makes you more likely to do dumb stuff. That includes taking diet-unfriendly actions like eating more, choosing to eat foods that you should avoid while on your diet, and generally begets more drinking (thus more calories). Binging on wine while on a diet is definitely NOT diet-friendly.

If You’re Drinking & Dieting, Make Lower-Calorie Wine Choices. If you love wine way too much to cut it out of your diet, go for lower calorie wine options. Dry, lighter white wines will generally provide less calories. Heavy, fortified wines, like ports, will generally have the most calories. For more information, you can view a quick table of approximate wine calorie totals here, or check out the more comprehensive wine nutritional listings at calorieking.com.

Know When to Take a Break. The bottom line: if you are dieting, you need to cut back on the wine. If you’re a contestant on Biggest Loser, then it’s probably a good idea to abstain entirely from drinking alcoholic beverages of any kind for a short period of time (until you reach a safe weight-loss milestone, for example). Sure it will suck to go without your favorite Cab, but a healthier you is more likely to be around to enjoy future great vintages of your favorite wine.

Cheers!

Update: More on Low-Sulfite Wines (Holiday Edition)

Vinted on December 26, 2007 binned in organic wine, wine health, wine tips

Happy Holidays to all, and greetings from sunny FL!

A (very) quick update on my last post regarding low-sulfite wines, just to prove I’m not totally biased against all organic / biodynamic wines!

I’ve come across a few other quality wines (featured in body + soul magazine, to which my wife subscribes) that I’ve recently learned are either organically or biodynamically made (or both), and that I’ve found to be of good quality…


Thought I’d take a brief moment during my holiday respite to share these wine finds with you. Hope that anyone looking for low-sulfite wines (that don’t also totally suck!) will find this helpful:

  • Bonterra Vineyards – Most of their wines are organic, and they make at least one decent wine that’s also biodynamic.
  • Fetzer – All organic, with a big focus on recycling during production and distribution.
  • Frey – Both organic & biodynamic, and vegan to boot!
  • Quintessa – Fully biodynamic since 2005; probably the most fabulous biodynamic wine you’ll find out there, but you’ll pay for it!

Cheers!

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus – But there’s No Sulfite-Free Wine

Vinted on December 21, 2007 binned in wine health, wine tips

My sister (a chemist) recently sent me an e-mail requesting some wine advice:

"I've got a friend at work who has been looking for a sulfite-free wine.  Do you know of any that are any good?"

My answer: “Nope.”

Not that a sulfite-free wine might not be any good, it’s just that right now, sulfite-free wines are like governments that don’t tax – they don’t exist!

Why this is has a lot to do with chemistry (lucky for me my sis is a chemist!). Which is one of the many splendid things when it comes to learning about wine – wine exposes you not just to the sensory pleasures of drinking it, but to the art/magic of constructing a good one along with the chemistry, agriculture, geography, and geology that go into making good wine. Lucky for you Dude has already done his homework in these areas (otherwise he’d have failed all those pesky wine certification exams…), so you don’t have to!…

But before we delve into the chemistry, let’s examine a bit of background on the whole wine / sulfite thang:

My sister’s coworker has reason to be concerned about sulfites, if that coworker is allergic to them. That’s because for those people, having exposure to sulfites in drinks and food can cause a severe (and in very rare cases fatal)asthmatic reaction.

But before you start pouring all of your fine wine down the sink drain, you should know that only 0.01% – 01.0% of the U.S. population is estimated to be allergic to sulfites (probably fewer than 1 in 100 people).

If you’re even an occasional wine drinker, chances are that you’ve heard the rumor that sulfites in wine cause headaches. Despite being popular in the rumor mill, there is no scientific evidence to suggest that ‘wine headaches’ are caused by sulfites. In face, if you do get headaches when drinking wine, chances are higher that the headache could be a reaction to any of several esters (flavor compounds) that occur naturally in wine.

Chances are greater still that you simply have a hangover (so drink more water next time, my party-loving friend, or – egads! – drink less wine).

Now back to the chemistry – sulfites are produced naturally during the fermentation process (so you probably are exposed to them in some beers, soy sauces, and other fermented liquids). The amount produced naturally is pretty small – anywhere from 6 to 40 ppm (parts per million). PPM is roughly equivalent to 1 milligram of something in 1 liter of water. Another way to think about it – 1 ppm is about 4 drops of ink in a 55 gallon barrel of water. Dangerous if you’re talking about arsenic, but not so much when you’re talking sulfites.

U.S. government regulations stipulate that wines containing 10 ppm or more of sulfites need to display a warning on the bottle, in order to alert consumers that are allergic to sulfites. Since more than 10 ppm are created during fermentation, and given that the labels don’t have to specify the amount of sulfites the wine contains, that pretty much means every bottle of wine needs to carry the warning – effectively making the warning a bit useless and confusing consumers that may not be allergic to sulfites but want to buy wine that has minial sulfite content.

Sulfites are also added during the winemaking process, which can up the ppm of the sulfites in your wine (the U.S. government allows up to about 300+ ppm). Why do winemakers do this? They’ve been doing it for hundreds of years – the first historical record of its use in winemaking is from a royal German decree in 1487 – in order to kill bacteria, prevent browning of wine form oxidation, and to help stabilize the finished wine. The 1487 decree specifies use of about 19 ppm of sulfer, which according to wine writer Hugh Johnson (in his Story of Wine)is an “improbably low” amount.

Some winemakers – mostly those making biodynamic / organic wines – deliberately avoid adding any additional sulfities (beyond those naturally produced during fermentation, of course). My personal thoughts on the current low quality of most organic & biodynamic wines aside, there are some quality producers out there who are trying to make great wines biodynamically, which are also ‘lower-sulfite’ wines (usually 100 ppm or less). A fine example is Frog’s Leap – lower on sulfites, big on taste, and good for the environment to boot.

A final word of caution – when shopping for ‘low-sulfite’ wines, don’t expect to find a long list of great-tasting options. So when you find a few that you do like, stick with ‘em!

Those looking for a bit more on the topic of sulfites in wine should check out this handy reference from UC Davis.

Cheers!

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