Sulfites in Wine

“Sulfites” are really sulfer dioxide which occurs naturally (in small quantities) in many fruits and vegatables, including wine grapes. Some foods contain a lot of sulfites; for example, two ounces of dried apricots contain many times more sulfites than a glass of wine.

Winemakers add sulfer dioxide to most wines to protect the wine from bacteria and to add structure to the wine to preserve its tastes and aromas. Winemakers carefully monitor sulfite levels in their wines during the winemaking process.

Although some people feel the the sulfites in red wine give them a headache, it’s important to note that white wines contain much more sulfites than red wines. Sweet white wines contain the most sulfites followed by dry white wines and then red wines. If people find red wine gives them a headache and white wine doesn’t, then it’s probably not sulfites causing the headache. (It may be tannins in the wine; some people may be sensitive or allergic to tannins.)

US wines labelled “organic” cannot have sulfites added. Note that most US organic wines will not last very long once opened (for some, only a few hours!). Also keep in mind that wines labelled “organic” from other countries may or may not have sulfites added. Laws governing food labels such as “organic” vary dramatically from country to country.

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Wine Tannins

If you’re new to wine, you may have heard the term “tannin” but not know what it means. Even experienced wine drinkers can be confused about tannins in wine.

White wine has essentially no tannins (at least, not from the grapes). Tannins in red wine come from the skins, seeds and stems that are in contact with the juice before fermentation. Additional tannins may be introduced into wine that is aged in oak barrels. Tannins give red wine structure that enhances the taste in your mouth and gives the wine body and an ability to age.

Different red wines have different amounts of tannins. For example, Cabernet Sauvignon often has a lot of tannin while Beaujolais wines are very light in tannins.

Tannins have an astringent quality often described as similar to the feeling that strong black tea leaves in your mouth. Some describe the feeling as drying. Very strong tannings may make your mouth feel as if it’s drying out.

Tannins in the best wines are balanced by acid. While tannins give a drying sensation, acids in wine make your mouth water. A well balanced wine will provide just the right amount of tannins to balance the acids, and vice-versa. This will provide a pleasant, long-lasting finish to the wine.

Wines with strong tannins hold up well to strong foods. Grilled meats and game pair well with tannic wines so that one doesn’t overpower the other. Although some people love the feeling of strong tannins in their mouth, others prefer to drink tannic wines with meals.

You can find wine with a lot of tannins from just about everywhere but particularly from Bordeaux, France, Piedmont, Italy and many Spanish wines made in the traditional style. If you want to avoid strong tannins in red wines, go with Pinot Noir (e.g., Burgundy or Oregon) and other lighter-bodied wines made from Gamay, Cabernet Franc, or light-bodied blended wines (like Valpolicella from Italy or many blends from California).

Whether you love tannins or not, they are an important part of the wine experience. Next time you feel a drying sensation in your mouth after sipping red wine, you’ll know those are the tannins at work.

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Value Wines

These days, we’re all looking for a good value. If you love wine but your budget is pinched, there are some great wines out there at reasonable prices.

The definition of “value wine” varies but generally we’re talking about wines retailing for $15 or less per bottle. Many stores give discounts for volume purchases (for example, 10% off for 6 bottles or more) and may provide other coupons or discounts that may sometimes be combined. Always ask up front if there are discounts or other offers so that you get the best deal.

You can find value wines from anywhere in the world if you look carefully. From the Old World (that is, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) look for wines designated as “table wines” or “country wines.” Some of these wines taste great and they are usually very reasonably priced. Visit a wine store you trust and taste them first if at all possible so you’ll know exactly what you’re buying. You’ll easily find value wines from Spain and Portugal. Shop around for French, Italian and German value wines. Look for wines with these designations on the label:

• France: Vin de pays [vah(n) duh pah-yee]
• Germany: Qualitätswein [kvah-lee-tayts-viyn]
• Italy: Vino da Tavola [vee-no dah tah-vo-lah]

Just like home prices, it’s all about location, location, location. You should expect to pay more (maybe a lot more) for wines from prime Burgundy vineyards than for wines from lesser known areas. If you’re adventurous, lesser known areas often make lesser known wines (meaning with lesser known grapes) that are really great. You might not have heard of Puglia (Italy) or Toro (Spain) but you can find some wonderful value-priced wines from there.

In the New World, wines from South America are worth trying. Land and labor cost much less there and so do many of their wines. The two major wine producing countries that you can find in Norte America are Argentina and Chile. (Other South American countries produce wine but mostly for domestic consumption.)

Chilean wines follow the traditional grapes of France: Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Chile is also famous for a historical French grape called Carmenère; similar to Merlot and no longer grown in France. Another white wine grape in Chile is Torrontel (known as Torrontes in Argentina) which makes a light and crisp, refreshing wine. Look for value wines from Casablanca Valley and Central Valley wineries.

Argentina is the 5th largest wine producer in the world! They are famous for Malbec for red wines and Torrontes for whites and you’ll find Old World varietals too. Torrontes is always light and crisp in style but Malbec can be smooth and fruity or powerful and robust, depending on the wine maker’s techniques. You can even find easy and subtle Malbec Rosés that taste especially yummy on warm days. Many Argentine wines are from Mendoza but look for wines from La Rioja, Cordoba and Rio Negro as well.

You can still enjoy wine with your meals while saving money. A little knowledge and some smart shopping can give you liquid enjoyment for less dough.

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Wine and cheese?

Did you know that cheese is perhaps one of the worst foods to eat while tasting wine? That’s because cheese is mostly fat and the fat coats your tongue inhibiting your ability to taste the wine.

We’re talking about tasting here. That is, when you’re trying to study a wine and understand what you like and dislike about it’s subtle attributes.

There’s an old saying in the wine business: buy with apples, sell with cheese. That’s because the acid in apples helps keep your mouth clean so that you can taste the subtleties of the wine. Serving cheese when selling wine can hide characteristics that customer may not like. Be wary of any tasting room with piles of free cheese.

Of course, when drinking wine, there may be no better food than cheese. Wine and cheese seem to naturally go together. And when your goal is to celebrate and enjoy life, cheese with wine is a heavenly break from our busy schedules.

Here’s a cheese tip: try Spanish Manchego cheese with your red wines. This semi-hard cheese is mild and nutty and goes great with bold wines.

Vive le fromage!

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Pairing Wine and Food

Do you know the best way to pair wine and food?

Perhaps you know the old adage “white wine with chicken, red wine with meat“? That works as far as it goes but it leaves many interesting wine-food combinations untried.

Next time you want to match a wine with food, think about matching the weight. Light dishes go best with lighter wines and heavier dishes with heavier wines. You may want a slightly heavier wine than the food you’re pairing; otherwise the wine may be ovewhelmed by the food. And who wants to drink wine you don’t really taste?

The whole preparation matters; a broiled white fish with a rich creamy sauce deserves a more robust wine than poached fish with rice. Broiled salmon? Next time try a Beaujolais-Village or a light Pinot Noir. Veal? Try a rich white wine such as Chardonnay or perhaps a Rosé.

Of course, there are the classic grilled meats with Cabernet or perhaps Shiraz (Syrah). The big tastes of both wine and food go great together.

And what about hard to match dishes like spicy Thai food or holiday meals with a wide array of light and heavy foods? Try a versatile wine with moderate weight, moderate to high acidity, and lower alcohol. Gewurztraminer and Riesling fit the bill nicely!

And finally, Sparkling wine is a wonderful accompaniment to many foods. Use drier sparkling wines (white or rosé Brut) with entreés and sweeter wines (e.g., Moscato d’Asti) with dessert. And if you like cheese either before or after a meal, wine and cheese go together wonderfully!

But no matter what, life’s too short to drink wine you don’t like. If you love Cabernet Sauvignon and want to drink it with chicken, I say go for it! The worst that will happen is the wine won’t compliment the food and vice-versa.

No matter what, great wine and great food are the ones you love most.

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