Category Archives: Wine Education

Wine Education Wednesday: Sulfites in wine

Chances are, the wine you drank last night had a "contains sulfites" advisory on the label. Ominous as that sulfites may sound, sulfites are a terribly misunderstood component of wine. We’ve set out to demystify a few sulfite myths here.

– First let me say that just as some people are lactose intolerant or allergic to pollen, there are people who are sensitive to sulfites, even the small amounts in wine (which contains about 10mg/glass; 80mg/liter), and this sensitivity can cause a reaction. Asthmatics can be particularly sensitive. This small percentage of the population must also avoid other sulfite- heavy products such as dried fruits and molasses. If you think you're sensitive to sulfites, try eating a handful of dried apricots and see how that affects you – dried fruits, particularly apricots, have about 10 times more sulfites added than your regular glass of wine.

– Sulfites are not the cause of the mysterious red wine headache. Some drinkers do get a headache from red wines, but studies have not yet been able to find the exact culprit there, though histamines are thought to have some effect. White wines often have more sulfites than reds, so if no headache is caused by whites, but you do get them with reds, its not the sulfites.

– Almost ALL wines contain some percentage of sulfites. Yeasts naturally create sulfites in wine during fermentation, so if your wine was fermented, then its got some sulfites hanging around. What the USDA’s advisory label primarily refers to are added sulfites.

fermenting juice- Sulfites are added to wine as a preservative since wine is a perishable substance. They are not dangerous. They have been a part of winemaking for centuries, though in different forms. They kill bacteria in wine, which we certainly don’t want, and they protect the wine from oxygen, which can turn a wine to vinegar pretty fast.

– Almost all winemakers add some sulfites to their wines. Again, winemakers want to preserve their wine, and sulfites are the safest way to do it. You can find wine with no added sulfites, which can be stated on the label. These are the only wines can be certified organic by the USDA. There are other organic certification programs that do allow minimal sulfites to be added.

– There is no difference in the French or Italian wine you drink here vs. the one you drank in the home country. Winemakers do not add more sulfites in wines coming to the US than they do to wines that remain local. Most other countries do not require a sulfite warning on the label, so you will only see the warning on wines purchased in the US. But again, that does not mean that a Bordeaux here in the US has more sulfites than the Bordeaux sold in Bordeaux. Just the labeling laws differ.

So, those are some notes on sulfites. A great article to read on sulfites and wine is here, done by researchers at UC Davis.

Why I love Viognier

This often mis-pronounced grape is being found on more tables and taking up more room in wine store racks – thank goodness! What a delicious and complex wine this grape can become! It can also offer wonderful easy-drinking values. I love it because it can come in so many forms – single varietal, in a white wine blend, or even in a red wine blend.

Due to the fact that the grape is naturally low in acidity, Viognier can be tricky to pick and produce. It has to be harvested at just the right time to maintain that balance between acid and fruit. It also lacks longevity, even at the high-end, so even when you’re buying “collectible” bottles, they are meant to be drunk within a few years.

What makes Viognier so appealing? Hard to put a finger on it, but for me it's the combination of aromatics and texture that make it so delicious. The nose is full of apricot, peach and perfume, while on the palate, you have this lovely, rich coating texture that is all from the grape rather than oak or malo-lactic fermentation. One drawback (or benefit, depending on how you look at it) is the alcohol levels can be high. Still the wines are a pleasure to drink.

Viognier is also a master blender, both for white wines as well as red. In white blends, its favorite partners include other Rhone varieties like Roussanne, Marsanne and Grenache Blanc. For red wines, it is actually co-fermented in small amounts with Syrah. The original region using this blend, Cote Rotie permits up to 20% of Viognier in its wines though its usually a much smaller percentage. Oddly enough, the addition of Viognier actually deepens the color of the Syrah and definitely boosts its aromatics. So successful in Cote Rotie, the practice has been picked up elsewhere, most notably in Australia, where you commonly find Shiraz + Viognier blends.  ch  grillet

Where does Viognier grow best? As a single varietal wine, you have the classic all-Viognier, all the time appellation, Condrieu. Condrieu is situated in the northern Rhone and produces some of the most delicious and complex Viognier you can find. Within Condrieu lies Chateau Grillet (pictured to the right), a small appellation of only a few hectares, which also produces only Viognier. Always under single ownership, this small production of Vigonier has a higher price tag, mostly due to its scarcity. California is also making some awesome Viognier, a few of my favorites being Cline and Bonterra. Australia has also found a niche with Viognier – Yalumba is doing great stuff with the grape and has an excellent organic Viognier.

When it comes to Viognier in blends, head to the Rhone where you’ll find it in many of the Rhone whites (though not in Chateauneuf-du-Pape whites, as it is not one of the 13 permitted varieties). And, like the single varietal wines, California and Australia are making some excellent white Rhone blends with Viognier.

For Syrah/Shiraz with Viognier? Cote-Rotie is the classic place to find this. But the hefty price tag and scarcity of those wines may send you looking elsewhere, in which case head to Australia. They have really embraced this blend and producers like Innocent Bystander, d’Arenberg and Yalumba are making some quite delicious examples. Do watch those alcohol levels though… they can get up there!

For food pairings, I love sipping it with roast chicken or a rich pasta sauce. My corny side loves to enjoy it on its own watching the sunset.

Malbec. It’s hot.

melipal

Malbec. Everyone’s talking about it. Everyone’s drinking it. It’s on wine lists and wine shelves and it’s taken the US wine market by storm. In fact, imports of Argentinean wine have jumped 39% in the first 6 months of this year, and a majority of that jump is Malbec. Talk about hot, you’ve got to check out our amazing deal on the Melipal Malbec 2006 – 95 points and only $18. The perfect Malbec to try if you are new to the grape, and the perfect Malbec to buy if you are a seasoned Malbec lover.

What exactly makes this grape so hot?

So what exactly makes this grape so hot?

argentinaThe history: A bit of a Cinderella story, Malbec’s typical role has been as one of the five grapes in Bordeaux blends, but usually only composing a meager 5% or less, particularly in Bordeaux. The grape is susceptible to rot and is not the best of the bunch over in Bordeaux’s maritime climate. However, when placed in the high altitude vineyards of Argentina, Malbec showed its true colors (a very dense, purple color) and made itself a very happy home there. The county’s wine industry will never be the same – when consumers think Argentina, they think Malbec. When they think Malbec, they think Argentina.

The wine: This is the most important aspect of a grape, is it not? The wine it becomes? Malbec creates a wine that is dense and purple. Aromas include  blackberry, plum, black cherry, violets, mocha and spice. The styles range from sweet & jammy to spicy & peppery. The wines have smooth but firm tannins and often a touch of oak. The majority are concentrated. Some are easy-drinking quaffers while others can be more complex and layered. Big-wine lovers love this wine!

The food: Obviously the grape does not make food, but the wine coming from the grape is an excellent match with beef! Steak, roasts, grilled  beef ribs… it’s a meat wine. Which leads me to the next reason Malbec is hot…

The price: It’s a value! At a steak restaurant, when that California Cabernet you love looks too ridiculous at $150, look to Malbec. You’ll find some excellent wines under $50 (at the restaurant!) that will match your meat just as well – if not better – that your usual Cabernet. Most Malbecs fall in the $10 – $25 range, though some producers make complex, age-worthy Malbec in the $50+ range. Beauty of the wine is, you can drink very well at a very nice price.

Sold yet? Here are some producers to look for: Catena (one of the oldest producers in Argentina); Crios; Melipal; Dona Paula; Terrazas; La Posta; Zuccardi . There are many more producers that are excellent, so keep exploring! 

Wine Education Wednesday: Côte Rôtie

Posting Wine Education Wednesday on a Thursday… because I’m a day late and because I wanted it to coincide with the great deal Wine.com has on a fantastic Côte-Rôtie wine –the Domaine Duclaux 2004. Delicious stuff, usually $50 and on sale for $24.99. But first, a bit about the region:


Region: Côte-Rôtie

Appellation & Country: Northern Rhône region of France, near the town of Ampuis, a bit south of the larger city of Lyon.

Grapes: Syrahtee pee vine is the only red grape permitted, but up to 20% of Viognier can be blended in during fermentation.

Climate & Soils: Côte Rôtie translates into “roasted slope,” which accurately describes where the grapes are grown for these wines. The steep,  terraced hills of Côte-Rôtie are indeed roasted during the summer due to their facing south. The soil is primarily schist, and picking grapes can be a challenge due to the steepness and the rocky terrain. I’ve climbed these slopes before trying to get some good shots of vines, and trust me, it’s tricky. Can’t imagine trying to pick grapes from each vine. So, while most pickers are more adept than I, other options like pulleys and such are occasionally used.

The main two slopes are the Côte Blonde and the Côte Brune. Aptly named as the slope of the Côte Blonde has mainly granite, with a limestone element that makes the soils more white. On the other hand, the Cote Brune has more schist and an iron content that darkens the soils making them more brown in color.

How does the wine taste? Since the grape is Syrah, you’re going to get some concentrated dark fruits and a definite element of spice. But, Côte Rôtie is known for being one of the more elegant appellations of the Northern Rhône. Unlike Hermitage or Cornas, Côte Rôtie wines carry descriptors like “finesse” and “feminine.” These characteristics have some to do with the soil  and climate, but also with that small percentage of Viognier that is added during fermentation. The co-fermentation of Viognier with Syrah increases the aromatics of the wine, while deepening its color and softening the texture. Though up to 20% is permitted, most producers include about 3% – 5%. Typical notes for a Côte Rôtie include raspberry & blackberry, violet & other floral notes and a touch of spice. Tannins are  refined, texture is soft but also rich and round. Wines from the Côte Blonde are described as more elegant, while the wines of the Côte Brune are known for a bit more power and backbone. Age-worthy, wines are also often approachable while young. Not to say these wines are lightweights! They can be quite powerful in their seductiveness. And quite addictive, too. guigal

Notable Producers: Guigal is by far the most well-known producer in Côte Rôtie. Established in the 1940’s, Guigal owns many vineyards in the appellation and makes some of the most sought-after wines of the region – the “La-Las” – which are La Mouline, La Landonne & La Turque. Get a hold of these three wines to experience the powerful finesse Côte Rôtie can offer. Other producers to note include: Vidal-Fleury (which is owned by Guigal), Chapoutier, Jaboulet and Duclaux. If you can find them, Ogier, Clusel-Roch and Jean-Michel Stéphan are quite delicious examples of what Côte Rôtie offers.

Take advantage of our deal on the Domaine Duclaux 2004! It’s a steal!

The Wine Academy of Spain

As a fan of Spanish wines, I was lucky enough to attend a three day intensive Spanish wine course in San Francisco last week. It was offered by The Wine Academy of Spain, which is dedicated to the education of wine professionals and enthusiasts, and the promotion of Spanish wines.

They offer courses all over the country, so keep an eye on their schedule for next year.

spain mapThe Academy’s president is Pancho Campo, the first Master of Wine in Spain and a member of Al Gore's Climate Project. The class instructor was the very passionate and knowledgeable Esteban Cabezas, who is a partner in the Academy and founder of the Wine Business School, and a Master of Wine student. You couldn't help but get excited about Spanish wine listening to him speak! The class was filled with wine geeks and wine lovers of all kind: retailers, wine radio personalities, specialized Spanish wine shop folks, sommeliers, distributors and importers.

We studied in depth the many wine regions of Spain, along with its important producers, and learned a great deal about the culture through Esteban's anecdotes about the food and his travels. We also tasted 50+ delicious wines. I was particularly intrigued by the section on Sherry. I knew a bit about the production of Sherry, but had tasted very little of it. It can be an acquired taste. Spanish people drink it much more than Americans do, but I encourage any wine lover to read about it and give it a try. There are so many styles, you are bound to find one you love. For a dry Sherry, I suggest trying Gonzalez Byass Amontillado Sherry, and for those with a sweet tooth I recommend Alvear Pedro Ximinez 1927. This one is excellent with vanilla ice cream.

Spanish winemakers produce many varied styles for all budgets, and each region is pretty unique. If you are a fan of lighter whites with refreshing acidity, try a Txakoli from the Basque Country, like my latest favorite, Bodegas Berroja Berroia Txakoli 2008, made predominantly from a grape called Hondarribi Zuri. Don’t worry about pronouncing it, just drink it. It’s delicious. If you like a red with some intensity and concentration, try a yummy Garnacha and Carignan blend from Priorat. If you are the more traditional type, grab a Tempranillo from the Rioja, which typically has more wood ageing and is great with all kinds of food. Or you can sip what many young Spaniards drink, “calimocho,” a mix of red wine and Coca Cola. I’m not too sure I’d like this (it sounds like a hangover waiting to happen), but Esteban told me not to knock it until I try it.

Salud!