Green Wine: CONTAINS SULFITES

  I was helping out on the sales floor at a Binny’s last Wednesday when I was asked a familiar question – Do you have any sulfite-free wines? This was already on my mind for the upcoming and ongoing series of blog posts on green wine, so I was eager to jump into my spiel:

  I pulled the customers over to the section of organic and sulfite-free wine. I pointed out that they were all certified organic, and that some are labeled no added sulfites while others were labeled no sulfites detected and that sulfites are naturally occurring in tiny quantities in all wine, and that we carry lots of other certified organic and organically grown in other parts of the store, and that some of them are biodynamic … and that’s where they cut me off.

  We just need wine without sulfites. It’s a gift for a friend who has a sulfite allergy.

  Oh, I said. These are what you’re looking for.

  This is exactly the reason that the most wines bear the label contains sulfites. Just like peanuts in candy bars and phenylalanine in chewing gum, a small percentage of people have extreme allergic reactions to sulfites, while the rest of us shouldn’t worry much about their use. But that warning contains sulfites sounds all chemically and kind of scary, which may help breed misconceptions on the subject.

 

WHAT ARE SULFITES?

  Sulfites act as a preservative in wine -  preventing oxidization (as an antioxidant), keeping the color bright and the fruit fresh, as well as sterilizing the environment and inhibiting secondary fermentation that might occur in bottle from wild yeasts and residual sugar.

  In modern winemaking, the term sulfites most commonly refers to sulfur dioxide (SO2), a colorless gas. It is often created by adding potassium metabisulfite (or sometimes sodium metabisulfite) to the must the mixture of grapes and juice early in the winemaking process, and SO2 is released. The wine is made in an SO2-rich environment, and some of the molecules bind with other chemicals in the wine. Potassium metabisulfite looks like a grainy white powder.

  In early winemaking you know, Greek and Roman times sulfur was used as a sterilizer in wine barrels. It would be burnt and would combine with oxygen in the air to create a SO2-rich environment. But this would smell like sulfur, like a burning match. So we’ve gotten away from that.

 

THE HEADACHE MYTH

  The most common misconception about sulfites is that they cause headaches. They do not.

  Many people do experience headaches after drinking red wine. This is sometimes caused by overindulgence, but it is likely that other compounds present in wine cause reactions in certain people. If you suspect that sulfites cause your headache, remember that white wine often contains the same amount, if not more, than red wine. Also, sulfites aren’t just used in wine they are commonly used as a preservative in dried fruits, and in much higher concentrations (legally as much as 5x) than in wine. My guess is that not many people suffer from dry fruit headache.

  Some people, like the friend of those customers I helped a few days ago, really are affected by sulfites. If you have a sensitivity, chances are that you already know about it. To help protect this group a fraction of a percent of people all wines sold in the U.S. have carried a required warning label since 1988.

  So what’s the difference between no sulfites added and no sulfites detected? Wines which are USDA certified organic contain less than 10 parts per million of naturally occurring sulfites (organic certification is a subject for another blog entry). These qualify as no sulfites added. Sometimes, no sulfites are detected, and the label can claim such, but sulfites probably do occur in undetectable amounts.

  Remember, I’m not a doctor, I’m a wine bloggist. If you have serious concerns about your sensitivity to sulfites, talk to your doctor. For the rest of us, the bottom line is this: Don’t freak out about sulfites.

—–

  For a quick overview of sulfites in wine, check out Karen MacNeil’s The Wine Bible, and for more information, see Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine. Both are available at select Binny’s locations, and also on my bookshelf.

Green Wine: About Wellness or Wealth?

  Recently, a friend asked me about organic wine.

  He asked what it really means for a wine to be organic. He counted off on his fingers all the different versions of organic wine he could think of organically grown, sustainably farmed, biodynamic, something about sulfites, and on and on. He asked about certification, and wondered if there is some centrally located body governing all this confusion.

  Plus, he seasoned his frustration with a dash of cynicism, asking this important question, Pretty much everybody now has some kind of green awareness in their shopping habits. What is organic wine really about; wellness or wealth?

  I understand his frustration.

  I tried to explain the whole thing, but found myself unable to unable without going into a lecture. Also, I was surprised to realize my own fuzziness on some of the details.

  We’re trying to make it a little easier at Binny’s with this checklist, which some Binny’s locations hang to show the green qualities of wines on our shelves. But even this list is incomplete, especially considering the ever-evolving nature of green wine. Even the word organic is confusing – despite its specific legal definition, it is often used as a blanket term for any wine that carries an image of heath for customers or for the Earth.

  Expect a series of posts here on the Binny’s Wine Blog breaking down the different types of green wine. We’ll try to get at the core meaning of different classifications of green wine; from the vine, to the winery, to the agencies that certify the finished product. I’ll try to keep a cautiously open mind skeptical but not cynical about each type, in order to cut through the hype. We’ll look at the USDA Organic certification process, and at Demeter Certification and Biodynamic farming. We’ll discuss the effects of SO2 and sulfites on wine and health, and discover Eco-friendly farming practices. We’ll see how greenwashing when marketing green takes more importance than actually being green is damaging the image of Earth-friendly practices overall. And much more.

  I hope you’ll join in the conversation.

  At its core, the discussion about green wine mirrors a larger discussion, one about our way of life, about how we as a nation and as a planet feed ourselves and how we live. At the same time, we must recognize blatant marketing as such. So we will ask: is green wine really about wellness of wine drinkers and our world or about wealth?

Dinner Pairing: Four Courses and Forty Wines

  I am one of the few people I know who is not a self-described foodie. There are lots of foodies in this business. Don’t get me wrong I like to eat, and I love wine pairing, and I can appreciate finer delicacies when they are laid out before me, but in my eating, my cooking, my dining out; a foodie I am admittedly not.

  Perhaps my budgetary constraints are holding me back, along with my love of cheap and easy food (give me a crisp white and a thick cheese pizza and I’m in heaven). I also assume that my vegetarianism is partly responsible. There is plenty of excellent meat-free cuisine out there, but I don’t often seek it out myself, and I most often find myself dining out with other members of the wine trade, and for some reason going without meat often makes these people grumpy.

  A good example of my foodie-ism self-sabotage would this tasting-slash-dinner I attended a few nights ago. I only missed out on a couple of dishes, and was able to direct more of my attention towards the wine, and I did leave happy and full.

  We arrived to a walk-around tasting with appetizers. A wide variety and huge number of wines forty or fifty were open for sampling at our leisure. The creamy goat cheese with watercress was excellent and was complimented wonderfully by the toasty notes and lively acidic backbone of the Duval Leroy Cuvee Paris (this Champagne is an absolute steal for $30) and also the Ipsum Rueda, a light and crisp white from Spain that features a floral nose and peachy fruit.

  With a glass of 2007 Owen Roe Riesling in one hand and a glass of 2007 Psi in the other, I sat down to the salad course: squash risotto,  tiny whole carrots with rosemary, beets with pistachios, and parsley with  slices of something white that I might have guessed were small, raw potatoes. Our host identified this as sunflower root, in season and sourced locally. Cool. It was good, but light, and didn’t get in the way of the riesling, showing the hints of green apple that might recall the Mosel, only drier with restrained acidity and a floral character. The Psi (that is the Greek symbol Psi) also went well with this course. It’s a great value at a fraction of the price of other wines from Pingus. The 2007 is the inaugural vintage of this Ribera del Duero is delightful and modern-styled (you can read more about the project here and here.)

  At this point a thought hit me: I don’t understand why people get so wrapped up in pairing wine with food. There is no magic bullet to wine pairing; very rarely is there an absolutely perfect wine for a particular dish. I found myself at this tasting with all these different options, this great variety of styles and even of prices, and everything was pairing well. I think the key is to find wine you like, follow the basic pairing rules, avoid obvious conflicts in taste, and enjoy yourself.

  As the main course was being carried out to our tables, I mentioned to the host that I don’t eat meat. He looked worried. I told him that as long as there’s bread, I’ll be okay. He frowned.

  Um, he said. We don’t have bread.

  I helped myself to the potatoes, and the creamy polenta, and both were delicious. I passed on the pork shoulder, and on the fish, which still had its head. Can somebody please tell me why people like that? It struck me that with this course and the salad course before it, my dinner consisted mainly of roots and tubers. It was my choice. Plus, it was free.

  With this course, I tried the 2005 Torbreck Runrig, 2006 Flor de Pingus (in magnum!), the 2007 Psi again, the 2007 Camins del Priorat, the 2007 K Vintners Syrah Milbrandt, and many more, and many more. These wines are all excellent. The Camins especially is quite a bargain at under $20.

  Dessert came in the form of apple cobbler with crème fraîche, and was delicious. I had two helpings. I was poured a 1968 Bual from producer d’Oliveira; I love the zipping acidity in this still young (!) Madeira the style is quickly becoming one of my favorites. We also tasted the Tannahill Passito, a rich honey-like dessert wine from Gewurztraminer. These are two distinctly different styles, Madiera and late-harvest gewurztraminer, but are both traditionally served with dessert. Both were great!

  Dessert also came with the one thing guaranteed to make me smile: a good cup of coffee with just a little cream. If I am any kind of snob, if I have any foodie tendency at all, it is my love for good coffee. As I said before, by this time I was feeling happy and full. I reviewed my notes which were scribbled on the back of a Post-It with directions to the place, and then headed home.