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) 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!
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.
You may not guess it from the sky-high prices of the top Bordeaux chateaus (some fetching in excess of $1000 USD per bottle – and presumably on allocation to those who can afford their own islands), but the European wine market has been in trouble for a few years.
With labels that many international consumers find confusing, and laws that restrict varietals, winemaking conditions, grape production, and dictate what techniques can be used by winemakers, EU (aka “Old World”) producers have been searching for the magic formula that will allow them to better compete with their “New World” counterparts…
While many producers in the EU have strong ‘brands’ (mostly linked to the most famous of their chateaus), countries like the United States, Australia, Chile, and Canada have stronger marketing, cheaper land, and encourage more innovative vineyard and winemaking practices by having far fewer restrictions on their production. Which is why, in the cheaper wine department, these countries are taking the traditional EU wine countries to the cleaners in the marketplace – and cheaper, everyday wine is, by far, the largest volume of wine produced and sold in the world today. And now EU producers are getting handed their lunch as wine sales of producers in their own countries are falling as the onslaught of New World wine marketing hits their shores.
The stakes are not insignificant – wine has accounted for over 5% of the EU’s agricultural output, employing about 1.5 million people.
So, what can the EU do about it? Presumably, they can argue. EU farm ministers have proposed some progressive steps, but some countries still don’t want to play ball, and are stymieing the process. Which is a shame – those countries may wine the battle, but without some sort of compromise, can the EU hope to wine the wine War?
Updated Dec. 19 – Looks like the answer may be ‘Yes’ – see more details in the news here.
This post is the second in a multi-part series where Dude will give you a ‘wine insider’s’ take on how to seriously up your ‘wine geek’ knowledge (and hone your overall wine-tasting skills along with your “impress your party goers” wine profile).
Some of you may recall my recent post on the first step to wine geekdom – reading about wine. If you’re new to this blog, it might be a good idea to review that post first. This post will explore the second (and most important) thing you need to do in order to up your wine IQ – Taste.
To know wine, you need to taste wine. There are no shortcuts, and it’s pretty much impossible to overstate the importance of building up your tasting vocabulary and knowledge via the simple act of tasting a glass of wine. Don’t just take my word for it – to underscore the importance of this, I asked Eric Miller, owner and winemaker of one of the largest and most successful PA wineries (Chaddsford), for his views on how wannabe wine geeks can best increase their wine knowledge. His response: “The important thing is to taste like a banshee.“…
Eric also added – “Go to the myriad of shops that do tastings and begin to get vocabulary in tune with taste. If that is not available, throw a series of parties and have a hell of a range of wines for friends and you to taste.” Throwing a wine tasting party is probably the most fun way to gain wine knowledge and is easier than you’d think – it’s actually tough to find people who *aren’t* interested in learning more about wine. There are great free resources on the web that can guide you through this (Jancis Robinson’s How to Taste offers some primers on hosting tastings, but you gotta pay for it). If you don’t taste, you won’t know what you like, and you won’t know how to describe it if you do like it!
Be consciously in the moment. Dude is not trying to get too Zen on you here – just make sure you taste and not gulp. If you want to get to know wine, you need to spend a little time with it. You do NOT need to become a snob, put on airs, or hold a wine glass up to a special light bulb for 15 minutes pretending to examine its contents. You only need to give it a sniff and really concentrate on tasting what’s in front of you. How to Taste also offers amazingly good, practical advice on this.
Experience before judging. Keep an open mind – you won’t learn much about wine if you enter into a tasting with preconceived notions of what you will and won’t like. Wine will surprise you and it will open up new worlds of delight to you – you just have to let it! Wine reviews are great for starters, but your own experience should always be the final determinant in setting your wine views. Eric Miller offered this advice urging wine newbies to taste and gain their own experience: “Avoid tight-assed views stuck on old world rules and regs. I teach a twice annual class on what wines taste like, the words to describe them with an international selection under the primary headings of: light fresh fruity dry (white and red), light fresh fruity sweet (I only show a white), med to full body dry white, med to full body red usually a Cabernet, Pinot, Syrah or Shiraz, and a fortified sweet red like LBV Porto. My suggestion would be to get the terms down in an environment like that.“
Record what you taste. Admittedly this is usually a pain in the ass (try not looking like a geek when sipping a glass at a nice downtown bar and then whipping out your journal and scribbling notes furiously), but it’s essential for upping your Wine IQ. Find a nice journal and record your tasting experiences. Don’t worry if only you can understand them – the important thing is to build a vocabulary that helps you identify what you’re tasting in a way that works for you. Over time, you will go back to these notes, if only to dig up information on a bottle you had a few weeks back that you really enjoyed and can’t remember the name of (this is how wine geekdom begins!).
Don’t Be Shy. Good things come to those who ask. If you really want to get to know wine, it doesn’t hurt to be bold. Most of what I learned about enjoying wine, I learned while talking informally to winemakers – and none of them have been unapproachable. “Go as close to the source as you can,” offers Eric, “Wine lovers like me will talk eagerly to someone truly interested. (You get a dozen newbies together and i will speak).“
Thanks, Eric! Anyone out there in the Philly region willing to take him up on that?