Ribera del Duero – Affordable Tempranillo

When it comes to red wines, Spain is known for two primary regions – Rioja and Priorat.  And just as Priorat has Montsant as its more affordable cousin, Rioja has Ribera del Duero. That said, some of Spain’s top producers are found here – the wines of Vega Sicilia, Moro, Pesquera and Pingus are highly sought after by international collectors and compete for their cellar space with the best of Rioja.

As with Rioja, Tempranillo dominates the wines of Ribera del Duero. Red wines are required to contain at least 75%Tempranillo, with the remainder being limited to a small group of acceptable blending grapes such as Cabernet, Merlot and Malbec, with up to 5% being allowed from Garnacha or Albillo (the only white grape allowed by DO regulations). Albillo is used to soften red wines to allow for more near-term drinking, and to lift the aromatics. Visitors to Ribera del Duero may find the Albillo bottled as a white wine, but it’s not allowed for sale outside the region.

Ribera del Duero is located just West and a bit South of its more famous sibling, Rioja. (map by Wine Scholar Guild – a great resource for your wine curiosity)

I was recently sent three bottles of Ribero del Duero wines to review, priced between $17 and $24.  In general, they are an exceptional value for fans of the new world style – that is to say, big fruit and tons of oak influence – which is odd, as Spain is and old world wine producer by any measure.  But Rioja started the love affair with oak, particularly American oak, and Ribera del Duero is following suit.

The one delicious exception to this rule was the distinctive Tempranillo (100%) from Bodegas Torremorón, both for its unique approach to production and its story.

Unique Production Approach

The wine is fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks before filtration and bottling without any time spent in oak. This lack of oak influence and the old vines (some as old as 112 years – note the gnarled vine on the wine’s label, above) yields a wine offering a pure Tempranillo experience like no other I’ve tasted. Bright, crackling fruit flavors are balanced by noticeable tannins in this young wine (2018) yielding a light-to-medium-bodied wine with a modest 13% ABV. Some dusty earth notes come through on the mid-palate leading to a finish featuring earthy beets, cigar box /sweet spices. A good food wine for lighter dishes such as grilled meats and roast poultry. You can find this wine for under $20. Sorry, I don’t have it in stock.

Unique Story

Founded in 1957, Bodegas Torremorón is a cooperative of growers and vintners who craft pure examples of high-elevation Tempranillo. Travellers to this remote location in the north-central area of Ribera del Duero will find the very tiny village of Quintanamanvirgo (population 94). Don’t blink or you’ll miss it. Bodegas Torremorón is one of only two businesses in town, and all 94 locals work for the winery! I can’t imagine living in a town of 94 and working for the same enterprise. Do they gossip about who has the most lowest picking metrics, or who slept through their early-morning punch-down duty? Doesn’t the thought of it make you want to visit, to see this place yourself? I’ll go with you, once we can travel again.

The vineyards, which range in age from 80 to 100 years old, reside just outside town in the province of Burgos. At an elevation of 2,703 feet, the grapes benefit from a continental climate featuring hot days and cool nights throughout the growing season; the moderately low annual rainfall lengthens the ripening period, resulting in greater complexity and aromatic intensity in the grapes. Consequently, these wines are darker and more concentrated than those from the west side of Ribera del Duero.

Of the three wine samples we tasted, all under $30 at full retail, this was by far the most interesting. I encourage you to seek it out. And if you love Tempranillo but thought you couldn’t afford them, many wines from Ribera del Duero producers offer great value relative to their pricier cousins from Rioja.

Best Use for Pineau des Charentes

What is this odd wine? Let’s start with the pronunciation – Pineau is pronounced much the same as Pinot but with the second syllable leaning a little more towards “new” than “no”.  Charentes is a bit trickier, and the best I can do to describe it as “Shah-rhont”, with the second syllable rhyming with a word somewhere between “won’t” and “runt”.

Charente is located in western France, named for the Charente River. The department’s most famous towns, also on the Charente river, are Angoulême (a regional center for the wine trace) and Cognac (which needs no introduction!)  

Map by worldatlas.com, by John Moen

The Wine

Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine that is a popular aperitif in the region but little known beyond its boundaries. It’s produced by blending unfermented (or lightly fermented) grape juice with Cognac, with finished alcohol of about 17%. It’s crafted in two styles – white and red – as determined by the grape juice used. It is aged for at least 12 months in oak, then at least another 6 months (for white) or six months (for red). There is also a very minuscule amount of pink produced as well. Most Cognac producers also craft a bit of Pineau des Charentes. You can find a bottle for sale in the U.S. for anywhere from $20 – $70, depending on how long it’s been aged, the Cognac used, etc.

Pineau des Charentes vary from white to Rose to Red, depending on the grapes that produced the juice.

Serve the wine slightly chilled (about 50 degrees – I don’t recommend serving it on the rocks, as some do) and serve in a sherry glass to amplify the aromas. It’s most commonly served before the meal, and although an aperitif is normally dry, this is an exception. Don’t worry, it does a fine job of tickling the appetite into full force. If serving with or after the meal, an aged version (Old or Very Old are the two classifications) will be far more satisfactory. Serve these higher-end versions just barely chilled – about 60 degrees.

However, as sweet wines go, I Pineau des Charentes to lack sufficient acidity to remain interesting throughout even a modest amount. To illustrate what I mean, think of a refeshing glass of cold lemonade – a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. If too little sugar is added, the lemonade is unpleasantly puker-producing! But if the sweetness is too high relative to the acidity, the once refreshing drink is reduced to a sweet, cloying beverage.

As an aperitif, serve at 50 degrees.

As a result, I found the best use for Pineau des Charentes to be in mixed drinks. The simplest is to mix an ounce with about 4-5 ounces of sparkling wine and garnish with a long lemon peel.

Simple enough! But cutting-edge bartenders have discovered Pineau makes a great cocktail ingredient and cocktalians will want to have a bottle on hand next to their Salers, Amaro, Vermouth, Pastis and dry Sherry. After testing several cocktail recipes, the one I liked best was the Aquarelle, from bartender Brian Elder at NYC’s The Eddy. Here’s the recipe:

Ingredients

  • 1 oz gin
  • 1/2 oz Pineau des Charentes apéritif
  • 1/2 oz Salers apéritif (high-quality gentiane liquor, about $20 for a fifth)
  • 1/2 oz Strawberries muddled with sugar
  • 1 oz Fresh lemon juice
  • Garnish: Basil sprig

Muddle the strawberries in a double rocks glass, add the lemon juice and then the gin/Pineau/Salers.  Top with crushed ice and the basil sprig.

Cheers!

Rosé All Day, 2020

Image from Wine Folly, a great source for fun wine info!

The popularity of dry Rosé continued its upward trend in 2019 and now accounts for over 19% of all U.S. wine sales among both men and women.  But today’s demand surge comes after many decades of winelovers shunning the category.

And I’m agey enough to know why! I clearly recall the White Zinfandel craze of the late 70’s and early 80’s – a sweet wine designed to appeal to a generation raised on Colas and KoolAid. The wine was a huge success for a decade, but became anethema to serious wine lovers as they discovered dry Rosés they could take to the table, just as they do in the old world wine regions, where Rosé  is a staple in every seaside village in Europe.

The current Rosé boom can be attributed largely to the efforts of one man, Sacha Lechine, the son of Russian wine writer Alexis Lechine, an influencer in his day and owner of Château Prieuré-Lichine, control of which was turned over to Sacha at the young age of 27.

When Sacha decided to make the greatest Rosé in the world in 2006, he introduced the world to the first Rosé ever to be priced at $100 a bottle (Garrus). Garrus Rosé led Sacha’s more affordable line up – in descending order of price – Les Clans, Rock Angel and Whispering Angel (which now sells for about $20 a bottle), the latter having been dubbed “Hamptons Water” for its popularity there. I’ve made inquiries as to whether Hamptonians actually use it for bathing, but have no reply at the time of this writing. But it’s easy to see how the wine was so named – Sacha’s Rosés are dry and light enough to drink all day, a foundation of the current style of Rosé that has become so popular.

Sadly, Sacha’s wines are so easily found they no longer qualify for my portfolio of interesting wine ‘discoveries’. But with popularity comes higher prices, and many of the following Rosés are even more affordable than his Sotto Voce Angel!

As evidenced by the five arrows that define the family seal (on this bottle, you’ll see it on the necker) this wine is from the Rothschild family (the Lafite side of the family, not the Mouton side). The logo has been in use since  the mid 1800’s, and represents the five siblings that inherited the family business – as the deathbed story goes, the patriarch called the family together during his final days and asked each of the siblings to break a bundle of five darts. When they were unable to do so, he proceeded to break each of the five darts separately, illustrating that the family’s strength was in staying together.  

The Los Vascos is a wine I don’t carry, as it’s commonly available in distribution and doesn’t qualify for my “Discovery” status, so there is no link provided here. But I endorse it as an affordable and delicious Rosé. You can generally find it for about $15. 

From Rothschild’s Chilean property, this blended wine is predoiminantly Cabernet – a grape I don’t care for when made as a Rosé. This wine is a delicious exception! It’s refreshing crispness makes me wonder if acid was added, as Cabernet is not known for high acidity, but manual additions of acid during the winemaking phase tend to leave a wine with slight traces of a flavor that reminds me of children’s aspirin or vitamin C, elements I did not detect here. Or perhaps its deliciousness is from the blend of the more traditional Rhone varieites that make up the balance. Either way, don’t question it, just twist off the screwcap and enjoy!

Bucklin Rose of Old Hill Ranch, $23.99

The Bucklin Rose of Old Hill Ranch is a blend of Zinfandel (62%) and the classic grapes of the Southern Rhone – Grenache, Mourvedre, Syrah and Counoise (38%) . The vineyard has existed since the 1860’s, and owned by the Bucklin family since 1981.

The grapes are harvested early (a sign the Rosé is an intentional product and not just the by-product of red wine produciton), whole cluster pressed, then the juice is fermented cold using indigenous yeast and finished dry. The wine is very pale in color, beautifully aromatic and crisp on the finish. Alc. 12.8%. 282 cases produced.

The Bucklin family history is rich and colorful and deserves more space than I have here. So for the curious with a bit of time on their hands, you can read more here.

Five Roses Rosato, $16.99

The Wine – A field blend of Negroamaro (NEH groh ah MAH dho, sort of) and Malvasia (MAHL vah SEE ah)  from Southern Italy. The Five Roses Rosato was first produced in 1943 – the first rosé bottled in Italy and the first Italian rosé to be sold in the U.S. For several generations, each of the de Castris had five children, just by chance, hence the name ‘Five Roses’.  This is their most famous wine internationally.

The Winery -Leone de Castris began exporting in the early 1800’s, nearly 140 years after the company was founded in 1665. Visitors can enjoy the exporter’s gourmet restaurant and luxury hotel, Villa Donna Lisa.  Leone de Castris produces only Apulian products, such is their commitment to the Puglia region of southern Italy (“the heel of the boot”) – a region made famous for its food and wine by the famous A-16 retaurants in San Francisco and Oakland. Their mission is to make the highest-quality Apulian products possible – in the land where they were born and raised.

Malabaila, Italian Sparkling Rose, fermented in bottle! $19.99

This is an example of what the Italians can do with sparkling wine outside of Prosecco.  From the Alba region, consisting of 100% Nebbiolo (which makes sense, right?  Pinot is the dominant grape in most sparkling Rosés, and Nebby has similar acidity and body, so…).  Fermented in bottle on the lees for 48 months.  I got the LAST of this wine from the distributor.  Woot! Just 8 bottles left in stock.

Tasting notes – Crisp red fruits blend with rich stone fruits and finish with an herbal note.  The lack of any dosage means this is a bone-dry, crisp and mouth-wtering wine,T so don’t be afraid to pair it with food! Try a bottle before they’re gone!
Provence Rosé “Le Provencal” $19.99

And this final Rosé brings us full circle – back to the Provence region of France where Sacha Lechine started the whole dry Rosé movement over a decade ago.

The Wine
Food-friendly, crisp and refreshing, and with moderate alcohol (12.5%), it even comes in the distinctive bottle shape French Rosé producers nicknamed ‘the corset’ – what’s not to love! Classic Provence Rosé – Strawberry, peach and citrus, with a zingy crispness and added interest from the wine’s native minerality.
 
The Producer
Established in Vidauban in 1922, the Mâitres Vignerons de la Vidaubanaise today controls 600 hectares of vines in the heart of the Appellation Côtes de Provence. Located on the limestone foothills of the Maures Massif in the southern Var (between the Mediterranean Sea and the Alps) the terroir benefits from the Mediterranean climate so beneficial for traditional southern varietals such as Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan and Rolle. The various vineyard parcels are vinified separately, allowing for more character and complexity in the winemaker’s final blend.
Dave the Wine Merchant
“Discover your next favorite!”
www.DaveTheWineMerchant.com

Tariffs: Far-Reaching Ripples

Summarized from The Drinks Business - Bordeaux Wine Trade Demands Compensation for U.S. Tariffs, by Phoebe French

Bordeaux producers are traditionally among the wine world’s wealthiest estates, offering some of the most reliably high-priced wines to wine lovers as well as investors. Their “en primeur” idea (buying cases in advance of the wine’s release for a lower price) helped investors taking fine wine seriously.

But today their story is very different. For the first time in this old dog’s memory, a confluence of factors have conspired against the Bordelaise – disruption in their key markets (Hong Kong unrest, China’s higher tariffs, Brexit uncertainty) all of which set them up for the crowning blow – US tariffs of 25%, with threats of far greater tariffs (up to 100%) yet to be settled. For perspective, the U.S. only puts a 10% tariff on aircraft purchased from Europe, the industry that launched this tariff war in the first place.

As a result, Bordeaux wines are plummeting in price (well, their price before tariffs, anyway) and the wines are reportedly selling for less than the cost of production. As a result, Bordeaux estates are fighting bankruptcy at an increasing rate, and are petitioning their government for three hundred million Euros as compensation for their hardship, just as the U.S. has given to its farmers.

I wish them luck. Our globe would be far less interesting to live on without the wines of Bordeaux.

Source:  Summarized from The Drinks Business, “Bordeaux Wine Trade Demands €300M Compensation for U.S. Tariffs” by Phoebe French.  Read the full article here.

Sonoma Becomes 99% Sustainable

To Your Health! The health benefits of moderate drinking.

According to today’s Wine Enthusiast posting by Virginie Boone, Sonoma County wine growers have become 99% sustainable. Larger in size then their neighbors in Napa, Sonoma weighs in with over a million acres, only 6% of which are planted to grapes. But the value of that crop has helped most of the region overcome the pressure from housing and commercial development – the same influences that threatens agricultural land in Napa Valley (read James Conaway’s book ‘Napa at Last Light…’ to get a broader perspective). The labor shortage and expense of providing H-2A housing at no cost is seen as a recurring theme of concern, along with the pros and cons of vineyard automation as an alternative to human labor.

In her article, Boone highlights some of the inspiring personalities behind this drive to sustainability. Recommended reading!

SMACK DOWN: Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Cava and Pet-Nat!

Line-up for 2019 blind tasting: Global Sparkling Wines. Dave the Wine Merchant

Since December sales accounts for about 33% of all sparkling wine sales, it seems a good time to explain some basic differences between the most popular types of Sparkling wine – Champagne, Cremant, Prosecco, Franciacorta, Cava, and Pet-Nat! 

To see our selection of sparkling wines, click here.

Comite Champagne - logo

Champagne: Though this is often used as the generic term for any sparkling wine, it is actually highly regulated. For a sparkling wine to be called champagne (the word is lower case when referring to the wine, upper case when referring to the region) it must come from the demarcated region due East of Paris. Other distinctive features of champagne is that the wine is made from three primary grapes – Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier (moon yay), a mutation of Pinot Noir. In addition, these wines must undergo their secondary fermentation in the very bottle you buy, as described in the steps, below.

This process used to be called “Method Champenoise” around the globe, but champagne producers lobbied the EU to require the term “Method Traditionelle” be used unless the wine is from the demarcated Champagne region. But the process is the same:

  1. Harvest occurs early while the grape’s natural acids are still high and sugars are low
  2. Dozens of lots of still wine are produced, not intended for consumption, these wines are quite astringent and searingly crisp!
  3. Master blenders then go to work to pull from various lots, creating the house style, intended to be consistent year after year
  4. The blended wine is bottled with some yeast and a small dose of sugar and then the bottle is capped so the CO2 from the fermentation can’t escape
  5. The resulting fermentation goes into the wine and creates the joy of the bubbles!
  6. After the yeast have consumed all the sugar, the spent yeast cells are left for years in the bottle, adding dough/bread notes and softness that offsets the astringency of the base wine
  7. When time to bottle the final product, the spent yeast cells are moved to the neck of the bottle, which is then frozen, the cap is popped off, and the force of the bubbles pushes the ice plug out leaving the remaining wine crystal clear.
  8. Finally, the bottle is topped off, and a final dose of sweetness may be added at this point before the bottle is corked, cleaned, labelled and sent out for celebrations everywhere!

Cremant de __________: This is the term applied to most French sparkling wines that originate outside Champagne and are produced using the “Methode Tradionelle” process (above). Other than the region and the allowance of additional grape varieties beyond Champagne’s traditional threesome, the wines are generally of excellent quality and value. The most common include Cremant de Bourgogne (Burgundy, using Chard and/or Pinot), Cremant de Loire (Chenin Blanc and a smattering of red grapes), Cremant de Alsace, Cremant de Savoie…

Prosseco: One of the most popular sparkling wines due to its affordable price and light fresh taste of apples and pears, Prosecco is the one sparkling wine on the global stage that does not ferment in the bottle. Instead, fermentation takes place in large tanks after the initial fermentation. Because this process can occur on an industrial scale, Prosecco is far less expensive than most global sparkling wines. There are two style, Spumante (sparkling) and Frizzante (lighlty fizzy), but the highest expression comes from the small region of Conegliano Valdobbiadenne.  The grape, formerly called “Prosecco”, was changed to Glera in 2009. Same grape, different name. Because Italy.

Franciacorta: This is Italy’s finest sparkling wine and is limited to the Province of Brescia in the beautiful Lombardy region (right), granted DOCG status in 1995. Allowable grapes number almost 20, and the dosage (final addition of sweetness) categories are the same as those of Champagne, but the Non Vintage wine can’t be released until at least 18 months in bottle, and Vintage Franciacorta for 30 months.

Cava: The majority (95%) of the cava is produced in Spain’s Penedes region in Catalonia. But there are also cava cellars in the regions of Aragón, Castilla y León, Extremadura, La Rioja, the Basque Country, Navarre and Valencia.

Typical grapes include a very different trio than those used in Champagne – Macabeo (white), Parellada (white) and Xarel-lo (also white!) – though Pinot is also allowed. The Rose version of Cava is made by bleeding off juice from red wine (Garnacha, Pinot noir, Trepat or Monastrell). Cavas must undergo secondary fermentation in the bottle, or else be designated as Sparkling Wine.

Pet-Nat: Hipster wine bars are over-flowing with Pet-Nat wines, described as the world’s trendiest sparkling wine. I find they are divisive among many wine lovers. The term is short for Petillant Naturel a sparkling wine that is fizzy, easy-drinking and intended for near-term consumption. Unlike all the wines above, you’ll find bottles of Pet-Nat are closed with a crown cap (like you’ll find on a Coke bottle). The secondary fermentation is started (yeast and sugar added to the bottle), and after several months, that bottle is sent to market without any disgorgement, dead yeast cells still in the bottle, leaving the wines hazy and flavorful. Because the wine is a natural product undergoing changes from week to week, Pet-nats seldom taste the same from bottle to bottle or month to month, and can often be a bit, um, ‘enthusiastic’ upon opening – be sure to have a towel handy and open over a sink!

Pet-nat wines can be a bit, um, enthusiastic upon opening!

Post by Dave the Wine Merchant

Sulfites in Wine: Are They Behind Your Headache?

Guest Post: Gerard Paul writes about food & drink at ManyEats. He insists you put down the fruit leather and pick up your wine glass. Cheers!

Photo by Elina Sazonova from Pexels

Photo by Elina Sazonova from Pexels

Go to a store and pick up a bottle of wine. It’s likely that the words “Contains sulfites” will be printed somewhere on the label.

(I suggest this store.)

We’ve taken a strange path to where we are today. Everyone has an opinion on sulfites, but not everyone understands their essential role in the winemaking process – without sulfites, you might be drinking vinegar.

So what’s the deal with sulfites, anyway?

What Are Sulfites?

The word “sulfites” (sometimes styled “sulphites”) are sulfur-containing compounds – including sulfur dioxide – that act as preservatives and antimicrobials.

In winemaking, sulfites are used to maintain flavor, improve a wine’s shelf life, preserve freshness, and protect a wine’s color from oxidation. Sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct that arises during fermentation, but winemakers often add more sulfites as a preservative to achieve the positive effects noted above. 

Adding extra sulfites to a batch of wine can slow or stop the fermentation process and help the wine remain stable even after bottling.

Sulfites in White vs. Red Wines?

Let’s get something out of the way: all wines will contain some amount of sulfites. That includes wines made with controlled low-sulfite processes.

White wine generally has more sulfites than red due to the differences in fermentation techniques. Being the sweeter of the two, white wine contains more sugar, which attracts bacteria.

Although yeast is the primary driver during wine’s fermentation process, some bacteria are likely necessary for fermentation (but too much can lead to spoilage). 

White-winemakers use added sulfites to stop the fermentation process before bacteria consume residual sugar. On the other hand, red wine is fermented with grape seeds, stems, and skin within. This introduces tannins into the wine, a natural antioxidant and preservative. Due to the tannins, red wines generally need fewer added sulfites for stabilization.

Natural Sulfites vs. Added Sulfites and Organic Wine

“Added” sulfites refer to any sulfites introduced to a batch of wine beyond what occurs naturally.

The content of naturally-occurring sulfites in wine usually range from 10-80ppm (“parts per million”), depending on the wine. 

In the United States, wine without any sulfites added (and some other requirements [PDF]) can be labeled “organic wine” and include the USDA Organic Seal. There is a lesser certification of “made with organic grapes” as well – winemakers can’t use the seal but can use the organic grapes label if they keep added sulfites below 100ppm. 

Photo by Terry Vlisidis on Unsplash

Sulfites and Wine

Again, without sulfites, wine is more vulnerable to bacteria and spoilage. Especially in imported wines, winemakers rely on sulfites to keep the wine fresh during transport. 

Sulfites are also one reason why wine tends to taste better with age. They help to preserve the wine’s flavor and body, so they’re an invaluable aspect of wine production and storage.

Is There Such a Thing as Sulfite-Free Wine?

There is no such thing as a 100% sulfite-free wine. Wine is produced through fermentation, and sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermenting process – even if only in trace amounts. 

Sometimes, wine is marketed as “sulfite-free.” Sulfite-free wines have no added sulfites, but they will still contain trace amounts of natural sulfites. The closest wines to sulfite-free are organic wines without a “contains sulfite” label – they have a minimum concentration of sulfites (below 10ppm).

Taste of Lower Sulfite vs. Higher Sulfite Wines

Sulfites don’t taste like much of anything in isolation, but their presence in wine can undoubtedly affect the flavor of the end product. At every stage of the winemaking process, the relative concentration of sulfites affects everything else in wine and changes how a wine tastes and feels.

And on the not-so-good side, since sulfites prevent bacteria growth, lower sulfite wines might have an unusual odor or spoil easier. Many casual wine drinkers report that some wines with no added sulfites lack the character and depth of traditionally-produced wines.

Also, low-sulfite wines are more prone to “mousiness.” Mousiness is used to describe an aftertaste that some have likened to stinky cheese, dog breath, or mouse urine (I’d love to know who first made that observation).

Mousiness isn’t necessarily harmful, but it can be extremely off-putting.

Are there Risks or Precautions for Low Sulfite Wines?

Wines with low sulfite content have a relatively short shelf life compared to wines with added sulfites. Once you uncork a low-sulfite wine, the presence of oxygen starts a series of reactions that cause it to deteriorate. 

Wines with no added sulfites should be refrigerated after uncorking. Also, try not to keep them for too long – in general, discard your low-sulfite wines after three months.

(Actually, I’d suggest just finishing the bottle).

Legal Limits on Sulfite Concentration

In the United States, the total finished sulfite content of wine is limited to 350ppm or below

Like I mentioned earlier, any wine with more than 10ppm sulfites must have the words “Contains sulfites” on the label to be sold in the United States. In Europe, sulfite content is limited to 160ppm for reds and 210ppm for whites.

Health Effects of Sulfites

Sulfites are harmless for most people, but there is a lot of misinformation about the nature of sulfites. Many people believe sulfites are harmful simply because they are a food additive. 

However, years of research have concluded that sulfites on their own do not cause cancer, mutations, or fetal abnormalities. 

Or, in almost all cases, headaches.

Are Sulfites Causing Your Headache?

No research suggests sulfites are the culprits behind the dreaded “red wine headache.”

It’s more likely your headache was caused by other compounds and byproducts in wine, such as alcohol, tannins, or histamines. While sulfite sensitivities do exist in some people, problems usually manifest as breathing difficulties rather than headaches.

Sulfite Allergies and Sensitivities

I’ve talked a lot about how sulfites have a worse reputation than they deserve. It’s time for a significant caveat: sulfite allergies are possible, and they tend to occur hand-in-hand with asthma.

People with sulfite allergies generally exhibit the same symptoms as any other allergic reaction when exposed to sulfites, such as itchiness, swelling, and trouble breathing. Sufferers have the same risk of anaphylactic shock as with any other allergy. Therefore, asthmatics with a co-occurring sulfite allergy should take care to read product labels and possibly carry an EpiPen and rescue inhaler depending on the nature of their allergy.

Now, let’s talk about sensitivities.

Unlike a full-blown sulfite allergy, sulfite sensitivity occurs when you lack sufficient quantities of the specific enzyme to process sulfites. Sensitivity causes various levels of inflammation rather than an allergic reaction. According to the FDA, just 1% of the U.S. population has a sulfite sensitivity – for all the sulfite talk, sensitivity is quite rare.

Foods with More Sulfites Than Wine

The weirdest thing about sulfite’s undeserved reputation as an undesirable compound in wine is how its concentration compares to the level in other foods. 

Wine has a lower concentration of sulfites than a whole lot of foods. For example, dried fruit can have as much as 2,000ppm of sulfites—nearly ten times the legal limit Europe allows in wine! 

Here is a list of some foods that have higher sulfite levels than wine:

  • Raisins
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Fruit leather
  • Canned soups
  • Pickles
  • Sauerkraut
  • Molasses
  • Deli meats and cheeses
  • Pizza crust
  • French fries

So, the next time your friend strikes up a conversation about sulfites in a bottle of wine, ask them to put down their french fries.

The Bottom of the Bottle: Sulfites in Wine

If you’re entirely unconvinced – or among the low percentage of people with sulfite sensitivity – there are excellent organic or lower-sulfite wines for you to try nowadays. For the rest of us, drink your next bottle secure in the knowledge that the sulfites within are safe and unoffensive.

Still, there’s no getting around it: sulfites are a controversial ingredient among wine enthusiasts and casual observers alike. They also have second-order effects on the taste and feel of a wine.

But they don’t cause your wine headaches.

 

Champagne & Your Holiday Table

Comite Champagne - logo

If you’ve ever been a guest at our table, you know we serve wine with every evening meal, and that we are big proponents of drinking bubbles with dinner. In particular, the wines of Champagne are known for their acidic crispness which makes them great partners for a wide range of dishes. But few can explain this better than the folks from the Champagne bureau…

No celebration is complete without Champagne, especially the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday. While Thanksgiving is uniquely American, traditional Thanksgiving dishes pair best with the sparkling wine that is uniquely French, Champagne.

Bottles may vary in style, body, and sweetness, but Champagne is versatile enough to carry you through the entire Thanksgiving meal. The effervescent nature of the wine easily transitions among different flavors and textures. The infographic below describes how to pair Champagne with traditional Thanksgiving foods.

Often high in acid and bright in taste, Champagne is perfect to indulge the high-fat and  salty foods that comprisse the Thanksgiving menu. Baked brie, Turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes with gravy are just some of the Thanksgiving staples that pair perfectly with Champagne wines.

Thanksgiving Pairings FR.jpg

Recipe: Scallops in Herbed Brown Butter

This is a favorite dish at our home!

But Scallops are pricey, so we usually splurge on them as an appetizer, sometimes served simply as shown at left, sometimes atop a small hill of mashed potatoes and turnips (boiled together, 1:1 ratio) or mashed sweet potatoes.

When shopping, be aware that you’re likely to find two types of scallops (aside from size), only one of which I recommend! Ask your fish monger for “dry” scallops, which are free of preservatives and the most unpleasant tin-like taste you’ll find in the cheaper version.

And yes, the “dry” scallops are FAR pricier, but the only scallps worth the money. Dry Scallops are also easier to sear and that’s important – the beautiful brown exterior is a taste treat!

Ingredients

2 “Dry” Scallops per person

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/4 stick unsalted butter, cut into 4 pieces

Fresh herbs, chopped (any combination of basil, tarragon, parsley)

2 tsp fresh lemon juice

1-2 Tbsp olive oil

(Optional: mashed potatoes/turnips or mashed sweet potatoes to serve as a base)

Preparation

Over med-high heat, warm a pan large enough to hold all of the scallops at once – you don’t want to do this in batches if you can avoid it as they should be eaten within minutes of plating.

Season the scallops with the salt and pepper (to taste). Heat the olive oil for 30 seconds or so, then place the scallops in the pan and brown for about 3 minutes. Turn the scallops and immediately add the butter and herbs. Spoon the butter/herbs over the scallops until the scallops are cooked through and the butter begins to brown (after the foam subsides) and to smell nutty.

Add the lemon juice, swirl to blend, and plate the scallops. Spoon the butter evenly across the finished plates and serve immediately.

Wine Pairing

Pairing wine with seared scallops can be a challenge. Scallops combine elements of sweetness and brineniness that fight many of the usual wine choices. If paired poorly, the wine finishes with a most unpleasant, lingering fishiness.

So look for a rich, off-dry wine with some brine notes as well as herbaciousness.  Really?  Yes! Look to the white wines of the Western Loire Valley, or the coastal whites from Italy or Spain. I avoid dry Rosé with scallops, as they rarely work well – a rarity for these most food-friendly wines. But Riesling, one of the other “World’s most food-friendly wines” works nicely, as does an off-dry sparkling wine.  Shop white wines here, and Sparkling wines here.

Enjoy!!

“Man that toast was too short!” (Said nobody, ever)

Want to show some appreciation for friends and family at upcoming Holiday events?  Read my ten tips for Toasting Success and you’ll be remembered as a pro.

  1. It’s not as hard as it seems.  Although public speaking is intimidating for many – telling someone “Thank You” in public is what most of us have been trained to do since we were three!  And a toast is just a formalized extension of that – just stand, clink your glass for silence, and say some sort of extended version of a simple Thank-You… “I think we all owe our hosts a big thank you for such a wonderful time, such great food, and for having the wisdom to invite such an interesting group of friends tonight!
  2. Know Your Audience.  You’re unlikely to give the same toast at a gathering of old school pals as you would at a work event, right? To avoid falling flat, or saying something inappropriate, remember those you’re inviting to raise their glass will be unlikely to do so unless your words are pleasing to their ear.
  3. Toast, Don’t Roast.  I once listened to a Best Man describe how he and the groom once stole a refrigerator from a neighboring apartment. It was the most inappropriate toast I’ve ever heard at a wedding, and was not appreciated by anybody, leaving many of the celebrants in a state of shocked protest when invited to raise their glass. This is not the time for the risky or risqué!
  4. 60 Seconds, Tops. One reason people can feel nervous before giving a toast is the false belief that every toast needs to be a speech. Quite the opposite – as long as your toast conveys your heart-felt gratitude, it’s a success. Your best bet is to shoot for 30-60 seconds, from the first word to the invitation “… so please join me in raising your glass to…
  5. Follow This Proven Outline. Having listened to and studied with some of the world’s truly great public speakers, I don’t think you’ll ever be disappointed when following their outline for a good toast:
    1. Thank the host and/or acknowledge the guest of honor
    2. (Totally optional, but recommended) Describe a shared experience from the past – light, and either humorous and/or touching.
    3. Invite all to join you in raising their glass to the honoree(s).
  6. Do It Early. Those who hate speaking in public find it preferable to procrastinate. But a toast is best when it sets the tone for an event early on – after everyone has been seated at the table and the first wine has been poured, for example.  Just before dessert is also a great time, but comes with the downside of, well, see below…
  7. Don’t Drink Too Much First!  For obvious reasons.  We are never as glib as we think we are after that second or third glass of wine!
  8. Eyeball-to-Eyeball.  Look each other in the eyes as you raise your glass. I learned this important lesson from an Italian winemaker who was aghast at my very American tendency to look at my glass as we clinked, instead of looking at the man who had just honored me with his toast. A toast is a sharing of our humanity, a celebration of it, and as we raise our glasses around the table, it will mean much more if each participant recognizes the others by looking them in the eye as they clink glasses. (This is easier when in a small gathering, of course)
  9. Standing Is Best. Standing at the dinner table as you propose your toast makes it easier to get started, as heads will turn to see what is happening. Clink a water glass (no, not the crystal one!) to gain attention, and dive in, or simply announce “I propose a toast!”.  If standing is not possible for any reason, simply raising your glass can be effective, though it does not convey the same gravity – which is often preferred for casual situations anyway!
  10. Sources of Inspiration. There is no substitute for speaking from the heart. But there is also a long history of wit and wisdom that may lend a humorous launch pad for your own creativity. I’ve collected some of my favorites over the years, and you are welcome to view them here