Sulphites in wine – and headaches

Before I get back to posting more techy-stuff about sulphites in wine, here’s a brief diversion into the question of whether sulphites in wine can cause headaches.

Two things are clear. One is that, as far as I know, there is no scientific evidence that they do – we know that sulphites may result in a number of various symptoms in a small section of the population, but headaches is not one of them. The second is, despite that, quite a few people do believe that sulphites cause headaches, and have anecdotal evidence to support their belief. And of course a lack of scientific evidence for a proposition does not mean it is wrong.

The main problem with the anecdotal evidence is that wine contains another chemical, one that we know for sure causes headaches: alcohol. And there are also other chemicals that could conceivably do the same. So if you suffer from wine-related headaches how might you attempt to identify what is the culprit?

An easy first step would be to establish which wines are more likely to give you the worst headaches. Are sweet ones are the worst? Followed by dry whites, and with red wines least likely to give you headaches? If so, that pattern is consistent with sulphites being to blame, because sweet wines are likely to contain more sulphites than dry ones, and white wines more than reds. On the other hand, if red wines are the worst, then it is more likely to be due to a chemical extracted from grape skins. A possible culprit is histamine – you could test for that by seeing if an antihistamine helps (but do check first that it is OK to consume alcohol with the drug). Or of course red wines might be giving you more headaches simply because they tend to contain more alcohol.

You could also compare your normal wines with ones that have particularly low sulphite levels. Generally speaking, a better quality wine, or something natural, biodynamic or natural, will be likely to have lower sulphite levels. But to be sure that you are comparing with a low sulphite wine you could go to the Raw Wine website and search for wines with levels under, say, 20 ppm. If lower sulphite wines give you fewer headaches it may still not be the sulphites themselves that are making the difference, as wines with low sulphite levels are probably low on other additives too. But on the other hand, if you like the low sulphite wine you might consider your problem solved anyway, so who cares?

Another approach would be to note if other sulphite-containing food and drink gives you headaches. Bright orange dried apricots are said to contain up to 1,000 ppm of sulphites. That’s a lot more than would be allowed in any wine, though to be fair you are likely to consume more wine in one session than apricots. Here’s a list I found of food and drink containing more than 100 ppm sulphites:

Dried fruits (excluding dark raisins and prunes)
Bottled lemon juice (non-frozen)
Bottled lime juice (non-frozen)
Wine
Molasses
Sauerkraut (and its juice)
Grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, red sparkling)
Pickled cocktail onions

I feel a bit ill reading that list, but if you can pig-out on dried apricots, molasses, sauerkraut (and its juice) and pickled onions without getting a headache, probably sulphites are not responsible for your hangovers.

All the above suggestions are as unscientific as any assertion that sulphites cause headaches. The best they can achieve is to give you a little more understanding of how you personally react to sulphite additives, and I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer.

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Sulphites in wine – maximum and typical concentrations

In pretty much all wine-producing countries, there are regulations to limit the sulphite content of wine. The limits are always expressed nominally in terms of total sulphur dioxide, but I suspect they all assume an analysis method that fails to account for some of the bound sulphur dioxide, as discussed in my previous post.

Let’s start by taking a look at sulphite limits in the European Union. The rather complex set of limits are very nicely summarised in a table in the document EU rules for organic wine production: Background, Evaluation and Further Sector Development:

If you feel motivated to check these various EU limits or get more details, the table provides you with the relevant document numbers, which can be found by a web search. But it is not a task to be tackled lightly – I once set out to extract the various sulphite limits from the 1999 regulations and nearly lost the will to live.

The US regulations on the other hand have the advantage of simplicity: for wines with no organic-credentials the limit is 350 ppm (or mg/l – the units are practically identical). That figure is widely quoted, but I am afraid I have not been able to track down the actual regulatory document. I had more success with finding an authoritative-looking document for organic wines in the USA: Organic Wine: Oversight, Labeling & Trade. That document covers two categories: wine made with organic grapes and organic wine, where organic wine has stricter rules. For organic wine, added sulphites are not allowed at all – though the wine will still contain naturally occurring sulphites, and probably need a sulphites warning on the label, as discussed in my previous post. However, for wine made with organic grapes sulphite additions are allowed, providing there is no more than 100 ppm sulphur dioxide in the finished wine. In the EU by the way, wine made with organic grapes is not a special category: the grapes must be farmed organically as claimed, but all winemaking regulations are as for conventional wines in the above table.

For allowable sulphite levels in other countries, The Oxford Companion to Wine reads: “In South Africa, the limit is 150 mg/l for dry reds, 160 mg/l for dry white, rosé, and sparkling, and between 200 and 300 mg/l for sweet wines depending on style and level of sweetness. Argentina: 130 mg/l for dry reds, 180 mg/l for dry white and rosé wines and sweet reds, 210 mg/l for sweet white and rosé. Chile: 300 mg/l for all dry wines and 400 mg/l for sweet wines.”

As far as biodynamic wine is concerned, Demeter certifies it internationally, and their document Standards for Demeter/Biodynamic Wine regulates the use of sulphites. The stated aim is that sulphur dioxide be restricted to the absolute minimum, but then the document proceeds to specify limits that are more lax than the US organic regulations. For different types of wine, the maximum allowable total sulphur dioxide at bottling in mg/l is:

But what about so-called natural wines? As you probably know there is no official definition or certifying body, but we can take a look at the list of wines made by the accredited growers and makers of Raw Wine – Isabel Legeron’s platform for the promotion of natural wines. By searching the list using filters provided on the website, it is possible to get a feeling for sulphite levels in wines deemed to be natural. The database also records which wines have added sulphites, but sadly you cannot use that as a search criterion. Here are the results of a search on 6th June 2019:

NATURAL WINES
Total sulphur dioxide (ppm) Number of wines
0 468
1-10 925
11-20 929
21-30 957
31-40 739
41-50 504
51-60 341
61-70 196
71-80 5
81-90 2
91-100 2

I think some of the quoted sulphur dioxide analysis results in this table need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, when you look at the data in more detail it is obvious that some testing laboratories round the concentrations to the nearest integer multiple of 5 or 10 ppm. Note also the high number of wines with precisely zero sulphites, despite it being commonly stated that fermentation necessarily creates sulphites in all wines. I have seen 10 ppm referred to as a detectable level, implying that measuring anything less than that is problematic, so perhaps that explains all the wines at 0 ppm? But regardless of such quibbling, I think we can conclude from the table that most natural wines contain less than 40 ppm, and that there are fewer and fewer natural wines at levels increasing from 40 to 70 ppm.

So now we know some the sulphite concentrations in some natural wines, thanks largely to sulphites being one of the obsessions of the natural wine community, but getting sulphite concentrations for wines in general seems to be more difficult. The assumption is often that the makers of cheap wines zap their wines with as much sulphite as they can get away with, to compensate for poor fruit quality, and for closer control of the winemaking process to create a consistent product that meets an expected flavour profile. On the other hand, higher quality producers are expected use less sulphites, as they take more care to select healthy fruit, are willing to put more effort into low-intervention winemaking, and are also more tolerant of variation in the end product. I personally think there must be some truth in that characterisation, but sadly cannot demonstrate it with numbers. More certainly, it is the case that red wines need less added sulphites than white, because the tannin in red wines will also provide protection against oxidation, and sweeter wines will tend to need more added sulphites, because the sugar binds sulphur dioxide, rendering it a lot less effective.

To get some feeling for typical sulphite concentrations in wines that are not claimed to be natural, I think we could do a lot worse than look at the maximums in the first table of this post. EU regulations are typically designed to reflect existing practice rather than to effect change, so I think it is reasonable to assume that most wines have sulphite levels approaching, but comfortably within, the specified limits for the different styles of wine. On the other hand, producers who particularly favour low-intervention methods (even if they do not identify with the natural wine movement) would be closer to around 30 ppm, and other high-quality wines would have intermediate concentrations.

So what are we to make of all this? To be honest I am not at all sure. One might hope that maximum sulphite levels were specified according to some sort of objective assessment of health risk, but I am not convinced we know enough about sulphite allergies to do that – there is not even agreement about what proportion of people are affected by sulphites (as mentioned in my previous post). So what we have are rules based on a mish-mash of current practice and ideology. In my opinion, the best that can be said for the current situation is that consumers can exercise a degree of choice about their exposure to sulphites – based on their world-view and how they personally perceive health risks.

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Sulphites in wine – clearing up a few points

I studied a bit of chemistry at university so I know what a sulphite is, I thought. It’s an ion that has a single sulphur atom, three oxygens and a double negative charge. And I most definitely would not make the common error of confusing sulphite with sulphate, which is spelled with an a rather than an i, and has four oxygen atoms – a totally different beast.

The usual story with sulphites is that they are added to wine to work against oxidation, and kill yeast and bacteria, but the downside is that some people are allergic to them, and in the US and EU they require a warning label if present at 10 ppm (parts per million – very similar to mg/l) or more. They are also anecdotally associated with headaches, and thought by some to be a Bad Thing simply because they are not Natural. However, at the next level of sophistication you might also be aware that some sulphite content actually is natural, as it is a fermentation product, and thus present in every wine even if not added artificially.

So far so good, but when you start poking around a bit more, asking what sulphite concentrations actually mean, and how many of us are allergic to sulphites, it suddenly gets rather more murky. What people call sulphites are not necessarily the sulphites a chemistry undergraduate is confident about, and it is not clear precisely what people are allergic to. I don’t claim to have a complete overview of all these issues, but will try here to clarify what I can.

The sulphite ion (top left), sulphur dioxide molecule (top right), and the two tautomers of the bisulphite ion (bottom)

Let me start by talking through some of the points made on Ben Rotter’s excellent webpage on sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide can be introduced into wine using any of a number of approved additives but, regardless of which one is used, the same set of sulphur-related entities will result:

  1. Sulphur dioxide – gas molecules in solutions
  2. Sulphite ions – as described at the start of this post
  3. Bisulphite ions – like sulphite but with a hydrogen, and less charge
  4. Unstable compounds – formed by bonding with various other chemicals
  5. Stable compounds – notably the product of reacting with acetaldehyde

Even though only number 1 in the list is actually sulphur dioxide, 1-3 are often referred to as free sulphur dioxide, and 4 and 5 as bound sulphur dioxide. The total sulphur dioxide includes both the free and the bound forms. Any protective properties are largely lost in the bound forms, with free sulphur dioxide doing the vast majority of the good work. In fact, it is the molecular sulphur dioxide that is most effective form but, depending on the pH, there may not be much of it present as a fraction of the total.

You may have noticed that from talking about sulphites we quietly slid into the subject of sulphur dioxide. You will find that is quite common in discussions of this subject, and the two are often seen as being practically synonymous. It does not help that when someone says sulphur dioxide they could be referring to

  1. Actual sulphur dioxide molecules,
  2. Free sulphur dioxide,
  3. Bound sulphur dioxide (unlikely perhaps),
  4. Total sulphur dioxide

In fact you could add a fifth, which is the sulphur dioxide measured by a specific procedure. More on this later, but let’s first take a look at sulphur compound allergies.

The first point to make on the subject of allergies is that people can have adverse reactions to several different sulphur compounds, and just because you have problems with one does not mean you need to avoid contact with all of them. In the food and drink industry it is common to talk about adding sulphites, and the product as containing sulphites. Accordingly, from a medical point of view, what is of interest to us here is usually referred to as a sulphite allergy or intolerance, as it is a reaction to food or drink that contains these sulphites. Also, my impression is that people take the practical view that all sulphited products finish up containing the same range of chemicals, as listed above, and do not bother to distinguish between the individual chemicals when gathering data about allergies.

There are many possible reactions to sulphites, both true allergies (due to an over-sensitive immune response) and other intolerances. The most severe response is anaphylaxis, which is rare but very serious and possibly lethal, while the most common is the worsening of any asthma symptoms, also potentially lethal in some cases. Other less serious possible reactions are hives and allergic rhinitis. But as far as I know there is no hard evidence that sulphites cause headaches. Estimates of the numbers of people affected by adverse reactions vary a lot. One estimate is that 1% of the population is affected, of which 5% also suffer from asthma; while another source says 5% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, compared with 1% of the rest of the populations; and a third source claims that in America less than 0.05% of the whole population is affected.

Speaking of inconsistency in terminology, you might also note that although food scientists and medical people tend to talk about sulphites, and the warning text on wine labels reads “contains sulphites”, the threshold level for warnings is defined in terms of total sulphur dioxide content, a label warning being required for 10 ppm or more. In fact a specific procedure (or one that gives similar results) is mandated for measuring sulphur dioxide: the optimised Monier-Williams distillation-titration procedure.

Looking at methods similar to optimised Monier-Williams (here and here), it seems that the first step is to acidify, which converts all the free sulphur dioxide, and also a fixed proportion of bound sulphur dioxide, to the molecular form of sulphur dioxide, and then the sulphur dioxide gas content is measured. So it seems likely that the concentration levels determined for comparison with the 10 ppm limit, are expressed in terms of molecular sulphur dioxide gas, rather than the ionic forms. Another conclusion is that, as not all the bound sulphur dioxide is converted to the molecular form for measurement, the procedure will not actually give the true total sulphur dioxide content – it will be somewhat less, but greater than the amount of free sulphur dioxide.

Why is the limit set to 10 ppm? I could not find a definitive answer, but 10 ppm is referred to as being a detectable amount, so it seems that it is linked to the practicalities of measurement, rather than the level at which some people might react badly. As the mandated procedure under-measures, it would anyway seem silly to start fretting too much about the science behind the limit of 10 ppm. Perhaps the best that can be said about the regulations is that they are capable of being enforced consistently, and offer a degree of protection to those who are allergic.

I can only assume that the sulphite concentrations often bandied about by natural wine advocates also refer to sulphur dioxide as measured by the optimised Monier-Williams method, but I have never seen it stated. You will typically see sulphite concentrations quoted if a low-intervention producer choses to add sulphites, but otherwise an informal description of a low-intervention wine will often only say “no added sulphites”. Just remember that there will still be sulphites in a no-added-sulphites wines, and quite likely more than 10 ppm. This may be fine if you are mainly concerned about the natural-credentials of the wine, but is definitely something to bear in mind if you have a serious sulphite allergy.

So that is my best shot at explaining more precisely what sulphites actually are, how they are regulated, and to what extent they are responsible for allergies. I have done my best to stick to facts to the extent I could establish them, and keep my opinions to myself, but I might be more indulgent in future posts now I know a bit more what I am talking about. If I’ve got something wrong, or could have explained something better, please let me know, and I will try to correct or improve what I have written.

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Gotsa Family Wines back home in Blighty

You may remember I have already posted about our visit to Gotsa Family Wines, and I mentioned in that post we were able to bring four bottles back with us. It is often the case that wines taste so much better in their place of origin (see image below), so how well did those four perform in a Manchester winter? Not so bad, it turned out.

Tsitska, 2016, 11.3% (tasted 20/11/18)
Medium pale amber. Intense. Slightly phenolic on the nose. Smokey, and some apricot I think. Medium high acidity. Dry. Saline perhaps. Gives a bracing impression. A serious wine. On initial tasting scored it higher, but for some reason it did not keep my interest when drinking with food so ****

Chinuri, 2016, 12.0% (tasted 12/01/19)
Medium amber gold. Delicate. Fresh. Dried apricots. Phenolic. High acidity. Bone dry. Intense on the palate. Medium-low astringency. Excellent length. Mouth-filling finish. Drink now. My favourite of these four wines, and it was my favourite of the three we drank at the producer’s in Georgia *****

Saperavi, 2015, 13.2% (tasted 12/01/19)
Tasted 12/01/19. Opaque purple. Intense, smoke, leather. Brett. High acidity. Medium high tannin. Intense, sharp blackberry and blackcurrant. Acidity and fruit largely obscures any brett on the palate. Good now, but could well improve. Just about ****

Rkatsiteli Mtsvane, 2016, 14.0% (tasted 15/01/19)
Copper hues. This is described as an amber wine on the label, unlike the Tsitska and Chinuri, which were called white. Intense, phenolic and bracing on the nose, with dried apricot and nut. Medium high acid. High, rasping, astringency – not at all a bad thing as far as I am concerned. As nose. excellent length. Good now, but would doubtless keep a few years at least ****

Sadly, as far as I know the wines are not available in the UK, but they would probably retail at a little over £20.

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Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine – book review

Untamed: 8000 Vintages of Georgian Wine by Anna Saldadze, hardback, available online from various places for £25.

My initial impression on opening the book was very favourable. It is not exactly what I would call a coffee-table book, as its dimensions (24.5 x 19.5 x 2 cm) are too modest, the images not dominating enough, and the text is too good. But it is certainly beautifully designed in a quiet sort of way, with the text nicely laid out, and excellent photographs and illustrations to complement the text. Even the maps, one of my biggest bugbears in most wine books, are both attractive and useful. The text also reads well, in a gentle and relaxed style, leisurely almost, in keeping with the general feel of the book.

The named sections cover the topics outlined here… The Quest gives background cultural information on Georgia and its wine. The Modern Pioneers is about the recent trend towards commercialising natural qvevri wines. Strangely, this section ends with a selection of label images from many different types of wine – not just the natural qvevri ones – each with a  short winery profile. The Qvevri is unsurprisingly about qvevri, and qvevri winemaking, and A Joyful Spirit is, less obviously perhaps, about the Georgian supra feasting tradition. This is followed by what for me was the most interesting section, as it covered ground I was less familiar with – The Estates describes the history of three large wine estates that were established in the 19th century when Georgia was part of the Russian empire, and tells how they introduced modern European wine technology into the country. The final main section is the longest –  Regions, Grapes and Wines, looks at the regions of Georgia, some of which are PDOs as the book calls them, or appellations if you prefer. This is where you will find the maps I referred to above, along with high quality ampelographic images of the vines most typically associated with each regions, and accompanying text. There follows 5 annexes, which seem to contain bits and pieces that were deemed not to fit into any of the other sections, and then a massive list of Georgian grape varieties, in both Latin and Georgian script. Presumably the point of this list is to ram home the vast number of native grape varieties Georgia has – 525 according to this book and many other sources, but it has never been made clear to me where this precise number comes from. And I am still none the wiser as to the source of that number, nor where the list in this book comes from. I note that it is not the same as the list at the back of Georgian Ampelography, and neither is it the same as the list of native Georgian grapes you get from the Vitis International Variety Catalogue database.

At the end of the author’s introduction, she writes “This book is a humble introduction to a complex wine culture. It is neither an ethnological study nor an œnological treatise, nor does it claim to be exhaustive. It merely aims to arouse curiosity, and to encourage the discovery of something which is at the some time very old, and yet also very new”. Those goals are certainly successfully achieved, and with a degree of aplomb.  I do wonder though if you, as a reader of my blog, might be expecting more of the œnological treatise that the book was never intended to be. But take it on its own terms, as an introduction to a complex wine culture, and you will not be disappointed.

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Thymiopoulos wines from Naoussa and Rapsani

I first came across Thymiopoulos in 2015, on a press trip in Northern Greece. They had a modest table in the corner of a walk-around tasting of Naoussa producers. At the end of a long day of eating well, drinking and tasting, my palate was jaded, and the rest of me felt a bit out of sorts too. Yet somehow the Thymiopoulos wines grabbed my attention. In contrast to most Xinomavro wines in the room, which seemed hard work for me at the time, those of Thymiopoulos stood out for their approachability. Under other circumstances, the other wines may well have been more appealing – I am certainly not averse to austere and astringent wines – but, in my fragile condition that evening, no thank you.

According to The Wine Society, the Thymiopoulos family has been growing grapes for generations, but only in 2003 did they start making their own wine. Since then they have considerably expanded their range and have converted to biodynamic viticulture, all the time building up an excellent reputation for quality. In The Vineyards and Wines of Greece 2017 by Yiannis Karakasis MW, the winemaker Apostolos Thymiopoulos is said to be considered “one of the stars of Greek winemaking” and “is credited with having shifted the flavour tone in Naoussa with his wine Earth and Sky by achieving that elusive combination of a strong tannin structure with a rich palate and fruity depth”. In the same book, Thymiopoulos is listed as one of the 6 best producers in Greece, and Earth and Sky is one of the top 10 indigenous Greek red wines. Jancis Robinson has also recently been praising Thymiopoulos wines, selecting the Jeunes Vignes in her recent Wine of the Week feature (only available to subscribers).

Back in the time I visited Northern Greece, even though Thymiopoulos were making a cheaper Naoussa for Marks and Spencer, the availability of their wine in the UK was quite restricted. But now things are looking up, and currently The Wine Society stock a particularly good range. So, for a local tasting group, a couple of weeks ago I bought five Thymiopoulos wines made exclusively from the Xinomavro grape – four reds of the Naoussa PDO, and one rosé. Also two Rapsani PDO wines, red wines made from roughly equal parts of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto. Here is the bottle line-up (click on the image to enlarge and see the labels more clearly).

I was pleased to note that most of these wines were sealed using Diam corks. Only Earth and Sky and Karavas, the most expensive wines of each PDO, used natural cork, and as far as I know they were also the only two oak-aged wines. I double-decanted all wines a couple of hours before tasting. They all had some fine sediment that was difficult to remove by decanting, but the sediment was so fine, and there was so little of it, that it was not noticeable when tasting. As usual, the scores below are indicative solely of how much I liked the wine at the time of tasting.

Rosé de Xinomavro, Macedonia IGP, 2017, £10.95
Late harvest and unfiltered. Quite intense for a rosé. Pink, verging on a copper-amber colour. Sharp and fresh. Almost vegetal. The fruit on the nose reminded me of a childhood fizzy drink, but I am not sure which. Pleasant, but not classy or classic. Medium high acidity. Dry. Aromatics assertive and intense, and very much as nose. Considering the tannic nature of the grape, I thought there may be some astringency, but no. A strange one. I am not usually a rosé drinker, but I think I liked it ****

Xinomavro, Jeunes Vignes, Naoussa PDO, 2017, £10.95
Medium pale garnet. Intense, mature and complex. Was this really as young as 2017? Medium acidity. Medium astringency. Aromas as nose. Elegant and understated. Drink now. Very pleasant drink. It might have got 5 stars, but initially it felt a tad watery ****

Kayafaz, Single Terroir, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £15.50
According to TWS, a tiny-batch experiment. Medium ruby garnet. Intense. Tar and violets that I associate with Nebbiolo. More primary than the Jeunes Vignes. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense, as nose. Excellent length. Young and punchy. Good now, but will easily keep going for a few years *****

Earth and Sky, Xinomavro, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £21.00
Old vines, 18 months in large oak barrels, and unfiltered. Another medium ruby garnet wine, but more ruby than the Kayafaz. Medium intense. Hints of one of the components of the Kayafaz aroma, but not the full range. Some oak and coffee. Medium high acid. High astringency. Intense aromatically on the palate. Probably will be better in a few years time, or if I had decanted the bottle earlier. But as it was –  ****

Xinomavro Nature, Naoussa PDO, 2016, £14.50
Another experiment according to TWS, this time in low-intervention winemaking, with minimal sulphur and filtration. But I do wonder how that is to be contrasted with the other wines, some of which claim not to be filtered at all. Medium ruby garnet. Nose very similar profile to the Kayafaz. Medium high acid. High astringency. Aromatically, if anything maybe a bit more elegant and supple than the Kayafaz. Note that although this is apparently marketed as a natural wine, it has none of the characteristics you might associate with that; neither weirdness nor vibrant fruit. Nevertheless this is a beautiful wine, and I think my favourite so far. Drink now  *****

Terra Petra, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £20.00
Grown on schist, and unfiltered. Medium ruby garnet. Intense tar and violets. Medium acid. Sweet, soft and gentle aromatically. Medium high astringency. As nose. Drink now *****

Karavas, Single Terroir, Rapsani PDO, 2016, £28.00
Indigenous yeasts, and 18 months in French oak. Medium ruby garnet. Tar and violets again, but this time with noticeable oak. Medium acid. Smooth. Vanilla. Medium astringency. Classy wine, with the mark of oak. Good now, but considering the price I hope it will improve. Pleasant enough, but I think I prefer the grape to shine more clearly through the oak ****

All the red wines showed aromas that I associate with the Xinomavro grape – aromas that also remind me of Nebbiolo and which I think of as “tar and violet”. I am however prepared to concede that the description is my rather lazy shorthand for something I have difficulty putting into words. The “violet” bit seems relatively accurate, even if I believe other people use “rose” for the same thing. But the “tar” metaphor is rather over-the-top for a slightly piercing mineral (i.e. not animal or vegetal) note. Another similarity between Xinomavro and Nebbiolo is that, to my taste at least, both share a certain savoury nature, and show relatively little fruit. If all that sounds negative, it is not meant to be. I like both grape varieties very much.

Naoussa wines must be 100% Xinomavro, but Rapsani additionally has Krassato and Stavroto – normally all three varieties in roughly equal parts I believe. I am not sure about the varietal percentages in these particular Rapsani wines, but I cannot say I particularly noticed the influence of the non-Xinomavro varieties.

My notes were written as I tasted the wines, and shown above in that order. But I did return to taste and drink the wines a few times, and on the return tastings I must admit I got more and more uncertain about the differences between them. However a few differences continued to stand out. It was clear that the Earth and Sky remained tight and unyielding. Also that both the Earth and Sky and the Karavas showed oaky notes, and they remained the wines I liked least for current drinking. The other three Naoussas seemed to get more similar to each other, becoming equally delicious, with the Jeunes Vignes standing out in terms of value for money.

Overall it should be emphasised that we all enjoyed all these wines when tasting them, and later when we drank them with food. Perhaps there is something to be learned about the relative popularity of each wine from the left-over quantities? Well, the rosé remains were taken home by someone, but on the basis of the left-over volumes the order of popularity for the reds (most popular first) was: KaravasJeunes Vignes, Kayafaz, Nature, Terra Petra, Earth and Sky. The people have spoken!

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The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova – book review

This is a review of The wines of Bulgaria, Romania and Moldova by Caroline Gilby, published by Infinite Ideas. The RRP is £30.00 and it doesn’t seem easy to get it cheaper than that now, but I bought mine with a (now expired) 35%-off discount code from The Wine Society.

The single word that springs to mind to describe this book is professional. It is thoroughly researched, carefully and precisely written in a rather dry style, and I think largely aimed at other professionals – wine buyers, and winemakers and investors in those three countries, potential or actual. I suspect however there is little of direct interest to end-user drinkers of wine in the UK, as there are no opinions on specific on wines available over here. Nor is there anything about how we might go about visiting the countries to find out more, should our interest be piqued. Little of interest in a direct way perhaps, but I did find the history sections worthwhile, as they provided good insights into how the current state of wine production came to be what it is, and I expect a lot of the rest of the book to prove useful for reference. As a wine geek, I am more than happy to own this book, even if it does not enthuse me as much as I might have hoped.

I have already commented negatively on the author’s short sections in this book on homemade wines, and I think those comments also indicate Caroline’s professional and industry perspective. While I am naturally inclined to defend homemade wines, I can absolutely understand that someone who wishes to encourage the development of commercial local wine production might see things differently.

The book’s major division is by parts dealing with each of the three countries. Then for each country there are chapters devoted to history, the current situation and possible futures. And those are followed chapters on grape varieties, wine regions, and producer profiles. At the end of the book are three appendices of statistics, a glossary, bibliography, and index. All the text is very thorough. But illustrations, grey-tone and colour plates, are sparse, and in my opinion of very limited value. And as with practically every wine book I read and review, the maps are particularly lacking. I know good cartography is not cheap, but it could contribute so much to a subject where geography is so important to understanding.

So definitely a book to get if you have a professional wine interest in Bulgaria, Romania or Moldova, or if you are particularly geeky in your interest in wine. But probably not if you have a more casual interest in the wines of those countries.

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Intrinsic wine faults – do they exist?

As discussed by Jamie Goode in his book Flawless, a wine flaw may be said to be a characteristic of wine that is present to such an extent that it impacts on quality – it causes a wine to be less attractive either to an individual or to an average taster, depending on whether you want a more subjective or objective definition. Clearly though, if you want to use the more objective version you will also need to define average taster. From the attendees in a recent workshop I attended, the concept of the average taster would have been very hard to pin down. There was a wide range of sensitivities to the various flaws we were exposed to, and when detectable they gave rise to different perceptions, both in terms of what they most resembled and how pleasant or unpleasant they were.

As explained in my previous post, I think it is helpful to distinguish between two types of wine flaws: faults, which result from the vine growing and winemaking process, and taints, which come from external sources. In that post I also took a quick look at taints, but below I focus exclusively on wine faults.

Faults like brett and volatile acidity are thought by many tasters to be attractive in low or moderate concentrations, and this is also true of some reductive notes, which may be regarded as minerality and not considered to be a fault at all. In fact Jamie goes a step further in his book and, referring to the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, points out that even if a fault is recognised as such, there is an aesthetic view that it can still enhance beauty, or even be part of it. Whether attractive or not, substances that give rise to faults will always be present in wine to a greater or lesser degree. It is also undeniable that whether large concentrations of the substance are acceptable or not can depend on the style of wine. For example, Sherry would not be Sherry without its oxidative whiff of acetaldehyde, but the same nose on a white Burgundy would cause the wine to be sent back in a restaurant.

And yet, despite all this, people talk about faults as if they have some sort of objective existence that is distinct from all the good wholesome stuff in wine. The reality of the situation is of course that winemaking gives rise to many chemicals that individually are neither good nor bad, but together create a wine that may be liked more or less by different people depending on the balance between the chemicals, personal taste, context, and expectation. Put bluntly, in the normal usage of the term, wine faults do not exist. Or, to be less blunt: I struggle to see why the concept of wine faults is useful. As discussed above, acetaldehyde may or may not a pleasurable aspect of wine, depending on many factors. But is that not also true of acidity, sugar and alcohol for example when out of balance, or any individual fruit flavour? So why is acetaldehyde then regarded as a potential fault while many other components of wine get away with it?

Of course, I am not denying the existence of oxidation, reduction and brett, nor the related chemical compounds that impact on flavour. I am just saying that it is often not helpful to describe them as faults. This is not mere semantic quibbling – the issue runs deeper than that.

To declare a wine faulty is to claim a degree of wine expertise, and pronounce a judgement on the wine. Sometimes that is a call that wine professionals may be required to make in the course of their work. And consumers occasionally need to do the same too, when deciding whether to accept a wine in a restaurant for example. Whether or not a wine is faulty also has legal implications in consumer-protection legislation in the UK, as the consumer can claim against retailers for faulty goods – but not, it seems, for a wine that is unpleasantly tannic for example. But those are merely formal and legal aspects, based on the conventional way in which so-called faults are traditionally viewed in our wine culture. The important thing is how much we like a wine, irrespective of whether the cause of our pleasure or displeasure is a fault or not.

Your attitude to wine faults will inevitably influence your views on, for example, homemade and natural wines. If you believe in faults, and in your expert opinion you detect them in homemade wines, then you are going to dismiss the wines and work towards replacing them with their less faulty commercial counterparts. But on the other hand, if you refuse to judge a wine by faults and see people preferring homemade to commercial wines, you are more likely to respect the taste of those people and celebrate diversity in wine. Similarly with natural wines. As a non-believer, you do not need to fret about whether a natural wine is faulty or not. Do you like it or not? That is the important thing. Well, it is certainly one important thing, and to me the most important. Of course you may also be influenced one way or the other by the philosophy of natural wines, but that is a different issue – one I try not to get involved with.

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When is a flaw not a fault? When it’s a taint

I have been doing a lot of thinking about wine faults recently – firstly as a result of attending a wine faults workshop organised by Jancis Robinson and her team, then through considering some comments about homemade wines in Eastern Europe and Georgia, and most recently from reading Jamie Goode’s book Flawless – and I have a few personal conclusions on the matter I’d like to share.

Although there are one or two grey areas, I agree with those who think it is helpful to divide wine flaws into faults and taints. In this classification, faults have their origins in the basic aspects of growing grapes and making wine. It is possible to avoid them only by using high-intervention viticulture and vinification, and even then vestiges will remain in some form or other. Faults include reduction, oxidation, volatile acidity, and brett. Taints on the other hand come from external sources that do not necessarily have anything at all to do with wine. An example is TCA contamination from corks; also smoke, ladybirds and eucalyptus, all of which can taint grapes in the vineyard.

Let’s take a brief look at taints here, and I’ll cover faults in my next post. To be called a taint, the added flavour cannot be entirely intentional and, if in large enough concentrations that can easily be attained, it negatively impacts the quality of the wine. Some taints are pretty much universally regarded as bad if they can be detected – cork taint is a clear example of this. Others, like eucalyptus, can be seen as a positive if not too strong, and can even be regarded as part of terroir. Note also, that the concentration of eucalyptus in the finished product is sometimes managed by the winemaker, by blending wines from grapes at different distances from the trees.

Essentially, what I am saying is that each type of taint should be considered individually, depending on how much it is liked or reviled. I would argue that, although each individual taint may have its own complexities and management issue, taints are straightforward in principle: they do not really belong in wine, but not all of them are unpleasant and some can be even desirable.

On the other hand, I think faults – flaws which are intrinsic to wine, remember – are more complex, and more controversial. If you disagree that flaws are controversial, wait until you read my next post 😉

Update 06/01/19: It now occurs to me that, in addition to faults and taints, there is a third class of flaw: one that results from poor post-bottling storage. Examples of this are heat damage, lightstrike, and oxidation due to a poor cork. I think these are closer to taints than faults, as they do not have a direct cause in the winemaking process, and if we call them taints my arguments should still work.

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How I got hooked on wine

Origins are often shrouded in the mists of time, and alternative versions of the origin narrative develop. My love of wine is no different, and two stories emerge from the vinous haze.

The first is more outward-looking.  I started going to wine tastings as I had friends who were already enthusiastic about wine, and I was persuaded to join them. Eventually, so much of my social life involved tasting and drinking wine that I decided I wanted to learn a lot more about the subject. It was then that I started reading widely about wine, eventually focussing on what was necessary for a WSET qualification, but not stopping there. Neither did the social aspect of my love of wine ever stop. There are few greater pleasures than sharing food and wine with friends.

The second story is more introverted, more focussed on a single event and, to be honest, the significance of the key moment only became clear with the benefit of hindsight. To give too many details would involve fabrication, but I distinctly remember the taste of the wine concerned, and I remember the effect it had. Its flavour was not complex or profound, but it knocked me round the mouth and made me sit up and pay attention. The flavour was petrol, the petrol of a mature Hugel Riesling. Oddbins’ shelf-talker had tried to warn me what to expect, but nothing could have prepared me adequately. The wine I usually drank at the time was pretty mainstream – probably New World, and at the posh end of what you could get in a supermarket. But petrol? Wine could taste like that too? And people sell and buy the stuff, and drink it? It took me some time to get used to the idea, but as I worked my way towards the end of my share of the bottle I realised I really liked it, and wanted more.

And I still want more. I want more petrolly Rieslings, and I want other interesting and weird flavours. I want to challenge my preconceptions about what wine can and should taste like. It may come as no surprise to you that I like exploring natural wine. I find the apple flavours you can often get in natural wines rather boring, but I like the fresh bright fruit, and often the volatility and Brett too. I like home-made, skin-contact, slightly cloudy Rkatsiteli, served from a jug in an outdoor restaurant in Georgia (see above image). Those wines remind me of when the whole gamut of wine was opening up to me for the first time.

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