How to Serve Your Wines at the Proper Temperature

[Editor's Note: This is a version of an article that appeared as part of the Paso Uncorked educational series coordinated by the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.  If you haven't checked out the other articles in the series, they are highly recommended.]

ServingTempIf I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white.  And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up?  Absolutely.

The basics

You’ve probably heard the recommendation that white wines should be served chilled, and reds at room temperature.  Both recommendations can get you into trouble.  And it should be no surprise.  Serve a wine too cold and its flavors are muted, its texture thinned, and its aromatics deadened.  Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. But never fear; it’s not that hard to get it right.

The details on whites

White wines should be served somewhere between cool and cold, depending on the wine.  Something more like cool (think 55°- 60°F) is appropriate for white wines that are the richest and the most complex.  Within that category – which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites – you’re probably best off at cellar temperature.  Wines with higher acidity and lighter body – think Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Albarino, or most dry rosés – are generally best a bit colder (say, 50°).  But here too, remember that “a bit colder” shouldn’t mean “straight out of the fridge”.  A white wine that’s too cold will typically show very little other than a sake-like neutrality and some acidity when it’s served at 40°.

The details on reds

For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about?  A beach house in Santa Monica?  An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment?  A Scottish castle?  What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house.  And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners.  Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.

Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity.  Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.

For most red wines, cellar temperature (around 60°) will do you well.  Some lighter reds can even be delightful chilled even a little further (think Beaujolais).  Just make sure that these wines are fruit-dominant.  Wines with more body, oak and texture need to be a touch warmer to show properly, but actually have a narrower optimal range, as they can quickly turn heavy above about 75°.

A modest proposal

Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s.  That's a great starting point for both reds and whites.  (And, as a point of reference, our partners at Beaucastel recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass.  If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass.  But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.

The fine tuning

Once you have the wine in your glass, you haven’t lost all control.  If the wine is a little cold, cup the bowl of the wine glass in your hands and swirl gently, and you can raise the wine a critical few degrees in less than a minute.  (Glass is a great conductor of temperature, and a lousy insulator).  For the same reason, if the wine is on the warm side, make sure to keep your fingers on the stem rather than the bowl.  And as a last resort, if it’s just too warm to enjoy, don’t feel too bad about dropping an ice cube in your glass, swirling it for a few seconds, and then removing it.  You won’t have diluted the wine much, and you can drop the temperature several degrees in a few seconds.  Of course, you’d do better to get the temperature right before hand, which is why you shouldn’t be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Even if the wine in question is red.


Worried about preserving an opened bottle? Just stay cool.

Over recent weeks, I've received several questions from people wondering how to best preserve a partial bottle of wine for future consumption.  Typically, they're wondering if they should invest in a system that replaces the air in the bottle with an inert gas, or in a vacuum system that removes the air from the bottle entirely.  They tend to be surprised when I suggest that they just cork the bottle up and put it in their fridge.

Wine in fridgeTo begin, it's helpful to know what is happening to a wine once a bottle is opened and air begins to have access to the liquid inside. With the introduction of oxygen to the wine's surface, a complex series of chemical reactions begins, typically first with oxygen combining with phenols (flavor components) to form hydrogen peroxide, and then with the hydrogen peroxide interacting with ethanol (the alcohol in wine) to form acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde has a cidery aroma and a curious, flat texture.  For examples of the flavors, look to intentionally oxidized wines like sherry and madeira: the taste that distinguishes these beverages from traditional wine is their the elevated level of acetaldehyde.

[If you'd like a more thorough explanation of oxidation's causes and effects, I highly recommend Jamie Goode's 2008 piece for Somm Journal: Wine Flaws: Oxidation.]

Many wines benefit from exposure to oxygen, within reason.  This is particularly true with young red wines, which receive a high level of reductive compounds from the skins of grapes.  Adding some oxygen to these wines, either by decanting a wine or just by letting it sit in a glass after having been poured, will often liberate flavor compounds that are at first tied up by the reductive elements.  But eventually, all those reductive compounds are combined with oxygen, and even a young red wine will begin to oxidize and show the acetaldyhde in sherried, flat flavors.  And older red wines, and most white wines, have much lower tolerances for oxygen before beginning to show symptoms.

How long after opening do you have before a wine becomes unpleasantly oxidized?  For the most delicate older wines, which have likely already absorbed significant levels of oxygen through the slow breathing of their corks over decades, it may only be a few hours.  Most younger wines will give you several hours safely, and some robust red wines will last happily for a few days.  But eventually, all of them will start to show oxidation's undesirable effects.

Key to knowing how to slow down these symptoms is recognizing that oxidation is a chemical reaction.  Like most chemical reactions, the rate of oxidation is temperature-dependent.  Combine oxygen and wine at 70° (think room temperature) and oxidation happens relatively quickly.  Put them together at 40° and you slow the process dramatically.  And this is why the most effective way of slowing the process of oxidation once a wine has been exposed to oxygen is to chill it down.  Yes, it's as simple as putting the reclosed bottle in the fridge.  When you're ready to drink it, the next day or later in the week, if it's a red or a richer white, just take it out 20 minutes or so before you want to pour it and let it warm up a bit.

Note that you're not buying an indefinite amount of time by chilling down an opened bottle; cooler temperatures slow down the chemical reactions but don't stop them.  But if you get a week of drinkability rather than a day, as has been my general experience, you've made real progress.

Will the various systems that exchange the air in a partly-empty bottle for an inert gas (typically argon or nitrogen) help?  If the gas is being inserted into the bottle as the wine is removed (as in a typical wine in keg system, or with the Coravin) absolutely.  But if, like most at-home wine preservation kits, the inert gas is applied only after the bottle is partly emptied, they likely only help at the margins.  You're most likely to get benefit from these sorts of systems if you pour the wine out fairly swiftly and then replace the air in the bottle with that inert gas.  But it's often not practical to do that when a bottle is being passed around a table over the course of a meal.  Each time the wine is poured, oxygen is absorbed by the wine as it is sloshed around the emptying bottle, and after several pours, there's enough oxygen dissolved in the wine that the process of oxidation will continue even if there's a layer of inert gas applied to the surface.

Similarly, the vacuum pumps that remove oxygen from a bottle don't eliminate the oxygen that has already dissolved in the wine, and they have the added complication that they do cause the wine to respire carbon dioxide, which is typically in solution in wine as a by-product of fermentation.  This CO2 provides acidity in the wine, and removing it can make a wine taste as flat as oxidation would have.

One great technique, if you know or suspect you'll only finish half a bottle, is to have an empty half-bottle available, which you fill and cork (or screwcap!) right when you open your original bottle.  Because that wine has had only minimal exposure to oxygen and can't absorb any more because of the bottle's seal, you can typically preserve it for a week or more safely.  But it does take some planning.  If you find yourself with a partial bottle at the end of a leisurely dinner, don't stress.  Just reclose the wine bottle, and stick it in the fridge.


Can I get an ice bucket for my red?

If I'm in a restaurant and ask for an ice bucket, you're much more likely to see a bottle of red on the table (and a surprised server) than you are to see a white.  And I'm likely to wave away the proffered ice bucket with most of my whites, with the possible exception of something sparkling. An ice bucket for my red wine? And a white let to sit on the table and warm up?  Absolutely.

Red bottle in ice bucket

Some of my thoughts on this were brought into focus by an interesting conversation I had with Richard Dean, the Sommelier at San Francisco's Campton Place, as we were finishing up a wonderful wine dinner last week. He had featured several Tablas Creek wines, all of them paired expertly, and served -- not a given -- at exactly the right temperature to offer maximum enjoyment. I complimented him on this, and Richard (who has been pouring our 2011 Patelin de Tablas Blanc by the glass for several months) remarked that a regular customer of Tablas Creek had commented to him that the wine showed best when it had warmed up a bit.  Richard wasn't a stranger to this phenomenon, but moved the wine from the refrigerator where they store most of their whites to the cellar where they store their reds, and was amazed to see how many more compliments he started receiving on the wine. 

I was not surprised. 

Serve a wine too cold and the flavors are thinned and the aromatics deadened.  Serve one too warm and it tastes heavy and alcoholic. And serving temperature matters most to the white wines that are richest and most complex.  Within that category -- which includes powerfully built whites like Chardonnay, Semillon, Gewurtztraminer and Pinot Gris, as well as most of the Rhone whites -- the wines that have the highest acidity hold up best to being served very cold, while those that tend to be broader and richer, and lower in acid, can show very little other than a sake-like creaminess when they're served straight out of the fridge.

We've noticed this in our own blending trials. Roussanne, which at cellar temperature is the richest and most complex white we make, shuts down dramatically when it's served right out of the fridge. And it does have an impact out in the market; I've noticed wildly divergent notes on CellarTracker about our Roussanne that I think are directly attributable to people tasting it at different temperatures.  Grenache Blanc, in contrast, shows quite nicely at low temperatures, in part because of its higher acidity and more traditional fruit flavors. One benefit of blending Grenache Blanc and Picpoul Blanc into Roussanne -- as we do in our Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc -- is that the blended wine shows much better than a straight Roussanne would at the cold temperatures at which it is often served in restaurants.  I still think it's important to serve the wine warmer, or at least let it warm up in your glass, but it gives us a fighting chance.

For reds, you often hear the recommendation that red wines should be served at "room temperature". That's all well and good, but whose room are we speaking about?  A beach house in Santa Monica?  An air-conditioned Manhattan apartment?  A Scottish castle?  What may have been normal room temperature (say, 65 degrees) fifty years ago in the United Kingdom, whence many of these wine maxims originate, is likely ten degrees cooler than your average American house.  And many restaurants are warmer still, heated by the massed diners and the kitchen burners.  Most high-end restaurants are now (happily) keeping their wines in a temperature-controlled cellar, but I still see too many restaurants with wines in bins or on racks on the walls, and even the ones with good cellars aren't likely using them for their by-the-glass wines.

Red wines aren't the same, either, as they were decades ago when the "room temperature" recommendation gained popularity.  Most red wines are riper, denser, and higher in alcohol than they were a generation ago, and while these wines can have a lovely richness when they're served cool, warmer temperatures emphasize their more unpleasant aspects, making them seem overweight, alcoholic, and sweet.

Thankfully, it's not that hard to make sure your wines are served at the right temperature. A typical wine cellar is kept in the upper 50s or lower 60s.  That's a great starting point for both reds and whites.  (And, as a point of reference, at Beaucastel they recommend that you serve all their wines, red and whites, at roughly 60 degrees.) If you're serving a sparkling, sweeter or lighter-bodied white, or a rosé, stick the bottle in the fridge for half an hour before you're going to open it, and figure you'll serve it around 50 degrees, and it will warm up a bit in the glass.  If you're serving a red, take it out of that same cellar maybe a half an hour before you open it, or less if your room is warm and the wine will warm up significantly in the glass.  But starting with the red wine too warm doesn't leave you many good options, as it's unlikely to cool off once it's poured.

But if you get an over-warm red wine when you're eating out, don't be shy about requesting that ice bucket. Hey, it's better than asking for an ice cube, right?


When wine tasting, step away from the carafe

I spent most of the last week on the road, making stops in New York, Portland, and Seattle.  At each stop, I found myself confronted with tasters whose first action upon reaching my table was to pour water into their tasting glasses so as to rinse out whatever was in the their glass and start "fresh".  I've always hated this practice, since at best, you dilute the wine, and at worst you change its flavors, often dramatically, with chlorine or other minerals that were in the water.  So when I got back to the vineyard this week I asked Winemaker Ryan Hebert if he could figure out how much the residual water left in a glass after a rinse actually dilutes the wine you pour in.  It's more than you'd think.

Carafe-no

To answer the question, Ryan mimicked what we typically see at tastings: where a taster pours water into a glass, swirls it around a bit, and then dumps it, holding it upside down for about a second.  That's pretty much normal; some people are more rigorous and shake their glass to the extent that I worry the stem will snap, while others don't even empty the water fully.  Then, he measured the difference in the wine's alcohol levels with and without the water.  What he found was that in a one-ounce pour, the alcohol level is reduced by 6.9% thanks to the water in the glass.  That means that to your ounce (29.6 ml) of wine you've added 2.1 ml of water, diluting a wine that is 13.5% alcohol nearly a full percent to 12.6% and weakening all the other flavors similarly.  Calculated another way, we would get the same effect by pouring roughly eleven gallons of water into each ton of grapes.

Do you think that this impacts the taste?  You bet.  And it impacts the texture more, thinning out a wine and shortening its finish.  This all happens even with distilled water, which is free of mineral content.  Using mineral water, filtered water, or tap water can have even more unpredictable effects.  We tried the same experiment with filtered water and found that the high mineral content dropped the amount of malic acid in our sample (the 2011 Picpoul Blanc) from 0.21 grams per liter to 0.08 grams per liter, presumably because the acids in the wine bonded with the basic particles in the mineral-rich water.  And I've seen people rinse with water that was so chlorinated that I can't imagine the wine tasting remotely like it was intended.

So, what should you do at a wine tasting?  First, don't feel that you need to rinse at all, unless you're trying to get an unusually strong flavor out of your glass, or you're moving back from red to white.  Remember that most wine tastes -- and is structured, from a chemical standpoint -- a lot more like most other wines than it does like water, so the little bit of Chardonnay you have in your glass is going to impact your next taste of Syrah much less than an equivalent amount of water would.  And if necessary, try to rinse your glass out with a little of the wine that you'll be putting into it next.  It doesn't take much, and the winery representative who's pouring the wine will likely be pleased that you care enough to taste the wine properly.  You'll make your pourer even happier if you make it clear in advance that you'd like a rinse... it's always sad when you present a full pour of a scarce wine just to see the taster swirl it around, dump it out, and hold their empty glass back out at you.


How (and Why) to Decant a Wine

One question we get fairly often is whether to decant one of our wines.  My typical answer is that most of our wines will benefit from some air when young, though it's more important for some wines than others.  And a few of our older red wines have started to show some sediment.  Decanting these wines is highly recommended, as even if you stand a bottle up in advance, pouring the wine around the table will re-mix any sediment.  We've started marking on our online vintage chart wines that particularly benefit from decanting.

The examples above illustrate the two different sorts of wines that you might want to decant. The first is what I'm usually asked about: young wines whose powerful structure can be softened, and whose subtler aromatic elements encouraged, by some exposure to air.  It's not actually that important how you decant this sort of wine.  Often, the more the wine splashes around, the better.  But for the second sort of wine -- an older red wine which has accumulated some sediment over time and which you'd like to be able to enjoy without having to strain it through your teeth -- technique is important.

Over the holidays, the Haas clan gathered in Vermont, and we enjoyed many wonderful wines.  Perhaps the highlight was a magnum of the 1989 Hommage a Jacques Perrin that we drank on New Year's Day with a dinner of truffled roast chicken and a gratin of potato and fennel.  The wine was rich and luxurious, powerful with dark red fruit, licorice, and earth.  It was still quite youthful, but had already accumulated significant sediment.  We'd have decanted it even if it were a 750ml bottle, but as magnums are awkward to pour at the table due to their heft, decanting the bottle into two 750ml decanters made the logistics of serving the wine easier.  Robert Haas demonstrates how it was done, step by step.  My sister Rebecca took most of the photos; you can see more of her great photography on her blog Campestral.  The scene, with the bottle having been stood upright two days before:

Decanting2_1

To start the process, remove the capsule completely so you can see through the neck of the bottle, and light a candle (a small flashlight works, too, but is less focused and less romantic) to shine through the neck so you can tell when the wine flow starts to include sediment:

Decanting_1

Then, pull the cork:

Decanting_2

Pour out the bottle carefully and gradually, in one smooth motion, with the goal of creating as little turbulence as possible.  The beginning, with the first decanter partly full and the second decanter at the ready:

Decanting_3

Pouring slower now, part way through the second decanter:

Decanting_4

If you've poured smoothly enough, the sediment should have collected in the shoulder of the bottle, and you can pour out almost all the liquid without getting any grit.  You can actually see the sediment still in the bottle:

Decanting_5

Done:

Decanting_6

We put the bottle on the table so it could enjoy the dinner too, and so we could read the label if we had any questions:

Decanting_7

Cheers!

Decanting2_2


What's that in my wine: tartrate crystals

A few weeks ago, we received the following email from a customer (edited to protect identity):

A couple of days ago we sampled a split of [Esprit de] Beaucastel Blanc at ... in ..., CA.  We enjoyed the wine until the moment we poured the remains of the bottle, and a glob fell into my glass, with a noticeable plunk.  The substance can best be described as several, 1 inch-long fuzzy-looking strands.  I have seen crystalline material and sediment in wine, but nothing like what plopped into my glass.  Needless to say, the restaurant did not hesitate to strike the cost of the wine from our tab.
 
I am just curious to learn what that substance could be.

Not the most pleasant of emails to receive.  And I'm sure that to the customer who wrote, the surprise at the end of the bottle colored his experience of the wine he'd been enjoying.  I was surprised, though, that the restaurant didn't have an explanation of what he'd encountered, because it's one of the most common things that can happen to a wine.  He'd encountered tartrate crystals that had precipitated out of a wine and settled into the bottle.

Tartaric acid is one of the three main acids found in wine grapes, and along with malic acid and citric acid provides the tartness in both grapes and wine.  Wine grapes are notably acidic; at harvest, their pH is typically between 3.25 and 3.5 at Tablas Creek.  While much or all of the malic acid is transformed to the softer-tasting lactic acid in the fermentation process, tartaric acid is relatively stable and is therefore responsible for the maintenance of a finished wine's pH and its resistance to various kinds of spoilage.  Still, much of the tartaric acid settles out of a wine during fermentation and aging as a part of the lees.

Tartaric acid's solubility is temperature-dependent.  So, when wine is chilled down, some of the tartaric acid drops out of solution as fine white powder or crystals and does not under normal conditions dissolve again.  For red wines, which are rarely subjected to cold temperatures and which may anyway be expected to throw a sediment over time as suspended color particles fall out of the wine, this is rarely a problem.  But for white wines, which are often refrigerated for days or weeks, and in which consumers aren't expecting to see any sediment, the tartrate crystals can be alarming.  We hear occasionally from customers who've seen these crystals wondering if they are shards of glass.  These crystals -- sometimes called, a bit romantically, "wine diamonds" -- are not glass, and are harmless.  In fact, they are largely potassium bitartrate, whose common name is cream of tartar and which can likely be found in your spice cupboard.  Nearly all commercial cream of tartar is harvested from wineries.

Most mass-produced wines are routinely stabilized in various ways, typically through sterile filtration (to eliminate any chance of refermentation in bottle), heat stabilization (for proteins that can cause a haze in a wine if it's exposed to high temperatures) and cold stabilization (for tartrate crystals).  The cold stabilization process typically involves chilling a tank of wine down around freezing for several days shortly before bottling.  This extended chill causes tartaric acid to drop out of solution in tank, and the resulting tartrate levels are then low enough that no more is likely to precipitate out in a customer's refrigerator or a restaurant's wine room.  Of course, like most interventions, cold stabilization has other less desirable consequences, and a lower concentration of tartaric acid in the resulting wine changes the wine's flavors somewhat and can impact its long-term ageability.

IMG00196-20110512-2145 How a wine is stored impacts whether a customer even notices tartrates in bottle.  If a cork-finished wine is stored upside-down, any tartrate crystals typically adhere to the cork and are removed with the cork when the wine is opened.  However, if a wine is stored upright, any tartrates that form are likely to be visible, and the last glass (like the one at right) will show the evidence.  And tartrates won't adhere to screwcaps, so no matter how a screwcap-finished wine is stored any tartrates will be visible in the bottle.

Coldstabilization At Tablas Creek, we prefer not to cold-stabilize the whites that we hope will have the longest aging curve.  These wines -- principally the Esprit de Beaucastel Blanc, Roussanne and Antithesis Chardonnay -- are also wines that we typically finish in cork.  It should not be surprising to see these wines throw tartrate crystals over time.  Of course, if they're stored upside-down, you may never notice unless you look at the underside of the cork carefully.  Our whites that we intend for earlier consumption, and our Rose -- all of which which are typically finished in screwcap -- do receive a light cold stabilization, like the one pictured to the right.  We would prefer not to have the tartrate crystals floating around in these bottlings, though it could still happen if a bottle is put in a cold refrigerator for a long period.

So, back to our initial customer.  What do I think happened?  I think that the restaurant likely stored the half-bottle upright in their white wine refrigerator for several weeks or longer, plenty of time for the tartrate crystals to settle out.  And neither the customer nor the waiter had seen enough minimally-processed wines to know that what they had encountered was normal.

IMG00191-20110512-2144


Please DO sniff the Cork!

So, I've seen a proliferation of articles recently that promise to educate wine novices to not come across as novices.  Whether this is a good thing is debatable; wouldn't you want an expert to explain things to you if you didn't understand how they work? It's not always a great thing appearing more expert than you really are, as you miss out on lots of opportunities to educate yourself.  Still, even worse is when advice on how to appear expert is just plain wrong.  One recommendation I see again and again that I just don't understand is that sniffing the cork of a newly-opened wine will make you look like a novice, as it tells you nothing about the wine inside.  A quick search of Google shows 302 matches for the phrase "don't sniff the cork".

Huh?

Sniffing a cork may tell you nothing about whether a wine is oxidized, or tannic, or whether it smells like cherries, or whether it's ready to drink, but it does tell you a lot about whether a wine is corky.  I open thousands of bottles of wine each year, at tastings here and around the country, as well as in a more relaxed setting at the dinner table.  I always sniff the cork, not because it's a guaranteed indicator of whether a wine is corky or not, but because it's a warning flag.  Sure, it's possible that a wine whose cork is suspect might taste fine, but in my experience, at least 90% of the wines that taste corky have corks that smell corky.  And, the more I open and taste wines, the more convinced I get that even if it isn't apparent at first, wines with suspiciously musty corks usually are flawed.

Another interesting factor is that most sound corks have an appealing smell, like a fainter version of a new oak barrel.  Wines under those sweet-smelling corks are nearly always in good shape.  You do get the (very) occasional false negative, where a cork smells fine but the bottle is slightly tainted.  And, of course, there are plenty of flaws that have nothing to do with the cork (oxidation, reduction, and refermentation are probably the most common).  So, it's not a foolproof test and everyone should taste as well as sniff a newly-opened bottle.  But, I don't see what good it does consumers to be denied a fairly reliable indicator of when they should at least be suspicious their bottle of wine might be bad.

Have any readers out there had experiences where people have looked down on you for investigating the cork?  Or been fooled by a bottle (either with a nice bottle under a musty cork or a bad bottle under a sweet-smelling cork)?  If so, please share.


Sulfites in Wine - What's Causing my Headache?

In my recent post on lessons I've learned from blogging I recommend that bloggers write about the questions they find themselves asked all the time.  Following my own advice, I realized I've recently answered several questions about sulfites in our wines.  There are two phrasings to this question, both getting at the same issue.  One phrasing runs along the line of "oh, you farm organically.  Does this mean that your wines are sulfite-free?"  The other phrasing is "I get headaches from the sulfites in wine.  Does the fact that you're organic mean I can drink your wines?" 

Just the other day, I got pulled in by a discussion on organic wines and sulfites on the excellent blog 1 Wine Dude.  As I was writing the response, I realized that this is exactly the sort of issue I'm recommending that others address.  The confusion surrounding the issue would be farcical if it didn't negatively impact the acceptance of organic wines in the marketplace.  The punch line of the joke (which no one I know really finds funny) is that sulfite sensitivities don't typically cause the headaches that most people who believe they suffer from sulfite allergies describe as their principal symptom.  Those who report headaches are far more likely to be reacting to the histamines (or, more rarely, the tannins) in wine.  Or the alcohol.

As for us, yes, we use sulfites.  If we didn't, our wines would be unstable to a degree we're not comfortable with, and we're making wines for aging over the long term.  We do what we can to minimize the concentration to under 100 parts per million (the average American wine is about 350 ppm).  Still, I am not aware of any top winery anywhere in the world who omits sulfites entirely from the winemaking process.  And, sulfites have been used since Roman times in wine.  The fact that (unlike in other countries) United States regulations prohibit us from calling our wines organic is an unfortunate consequence of the widespread fear in America that many, many people are allergic to sulfites.  Fortunately, sulfite allergies are quite rare, and wine contains minor quantities of sulfites compared to other common foods.   

Important fact #1: If you (other than wine) eat quite normally, and wine (particularly young, red wine) gives you headaches, you almost certainly are not allergic to sulfites. 

Sulfur occurs in many foods, including (according to WebMD):

  • Baked goods
  • Soup mixes
  • Jams
  • Canned vegetables
  • Pickled foods
  • Gravies
  • Dried fruit
  • Potato chips
  • Trail mix
  • Beer and wine
  • Vegetable juices
  • Sparkling grape juice
  • Apple cider
  • Bottled lemon juice and lime juice
  • Bottled Tea
  • Many condiments
  • Molasses
  • Fresh or frozen shrimp
  • Guacamole
  • Maraschino cherries
  • Dehydrated, pre-cut or peeled potatoes

Particularly common sources of sulfites are dried fruit, potato chips and french fries, and condiments.  Three ounces of dried apricots, for example, contain 175mg of sulfur dioxide.  By contrast, a four ounce glass of Tablas Creek (at 100ppm of sulfites) contains about 12mg.  Even a glass of wine with average sulfite levels would contain about 40mg of sulfur dioxide.  You'd need to drink half a bottle to get the same sulfites as that handful of apricots. 

The FDA estimates that about 500,000 people in the United States have sulfite allergies (about two-tenths of one percent of the population).  Those who do need to be very careful about what they eat and drink, as exposure to sulfites can cause respiratory reactions.  Six people have died in the last 30 years in the United States due to sulfite reactions (none traceable to wine).  The reactions to a sulfite allergy are typically wheezing, coughing, hives, abdominal pain, and difficulty swallowing, the same reactions you'd expect from, say, a medical allergy (and, in fact, those with allergies to Sulfa drugs are much more likely to have other sulfite allergies).

Headaches, on the other hand, are not mentioned in the literature on sulfites, but are common reactions to an excess of histamines.  Many more people have sensitivities to histamines, which are common in pollen as well as many other plant materials.  Reactions to histamines include headache, itchy eyes, runny nose and flushed skin... the common effects of hay fever.   It's less well known that histamines are also common in the skins of grapes.  This explains why many people are sensitive to only red wines (which spend time in fermentation next to grape skins) or only to young wines (histamines break down over time in bottle).

Important fact #2: as with seasonal allergies, sensitivities to the histamines in wine can be treated with an over-the-counter antihistamine such as Benadryl or Claritin.

So why does the government mandate that wines display "CONTAINS SULFITES" on the back of nearly every label, but make no mention of histamines, when histamine reactions are much more common than sulfite allergies?  Essentially, histamine reactions are not particularly dangerous.  Inconvenient, sure, but not life-threatening.  However, from the number of questions I get, it's clear that the government-mandated warning has convinced lots of people that they're allergic to something they're not, and obscured the easy steps people could take to minimize their reactions. 

I've already written about how the fact that American wines with sulfites are prohibited from being labeled organic discourages vineyards from farming organically, so I won't go into that again here.  It's just another example of the unintended consequences of even well-intentioned government.


Corks and Screwcaps: Not an open and shut case

I came back from a tasting today (the always excellent Central Coast Wine Classic) having again had my third discussion in a week with a consumer who was confused as to why we bottle some of our wines in Stelvin screwcaps, and others in cork.  She asked if it was because the wines in screwcap were less expensive than those in cork (they weren't).  We do our best to match up the wine with the closure that best allows it to age and evolve gracefully, and the answer is not the same for all wines, any more than a one-size-fits all prescription for winemaking would be.  Tell a winemaker that he must choose either 100% barrels or 100% stainless steel tanks for everything in his cellar, and you'd have a revolt.  And yet most accept such a prescription for sealing their wines without question.

Spectator_cork_screwcap I guess I can see how consumers would find this difficult to understand; most of the coverage of alternative closures is terribly reductive, either taking the position that anyone who stuffs a piece of tree bark into a bottle of wine deserves the contamination they're likely to get, or in talking in mushy language about the romance of opening a cork-finished bottle of wine.  Probably the most public debate of this sort was played out in the March 15, 2005 issue of the Wine Spectator, where James Laube and James Suckling shared cover space with dueling articles entitled "Why I Hate Cork" and "Why I Love Cork".

It is undeniable that  a percentage of all natural corks are tainted by TCA, a chlorine compound that makes the cork (and any wine in contact with it) smell and taste musty.  Industry estimates range from 3% to as high as 10%.  Even at 3%, this is a terribly large number of bottles that are ruined each year.  For a winery of our size (our production of about 16,000 cases per year) this would mean that we'd send out over 5000 bottles that would be compromised.  If we were lucky, the consumer would recognize that this bottle was corky and would request a replacement.  If we're unlucky, the consumer just decides that he must not like Tablas Creek (or at least that particular bottling).  It's easy to see why so many winemakers are passionate advocates of alternative closures.

At Tablas Creek, we have bottled samples of the same wines, finished in both cork and screwcap, since 2002.  We have tracked their evolution to get some of our own impressions of what the various impacts of both options are.  When we taste the wines, we do it blind, and ask ourselves (and anyone who joins us for these tastings) to describe what we taste.  Matt Kramer included his experience in such a tasting in a thoughtful piece in the Wine Spectator in August 2004. 

We (and everyone who's joined us) describe consistent differences between the cork-finished and screwcapped wines, and have noted these differences as early as 3 months after bottling.  Wines bottled under screwcaps taste fresher, higher in acid, younger, tighter, and more mineral.  Wines bottled under cork taste softer, sweeter, richer, more open, and more evolved.  Which is better is not a simple question, and it depends on what we want out of the wine.  For an aromatic white, or for our Rose, we like the brightness and freshness that the screwcap provides, and feel that the screwcap will have the additional benefit of keeping these wines (which are typically meant to be enjoyed young) tasting youthful longer.  But those same characteristics do not benefit most of our reds, and they do not benefit our Roussanne-based whites, all of which we want to develop that softness and sweetness that time brings to wines meant to age.

There is logic to this.  Corks come from the bark of cork oaks, and have a flavor (if untainted) similar to gentle oak from a barrel.  In addition, they provide a measure of oxygen exchange with the wine (even if they provide a perfect seal between the wine and the outside air, corks contain oxygen in their pores and share that with the wine).  Screwcaps provide a better seal, but don't provide either the flavor exchange or the oxygen exchange that a cork does. (New models of screwcap allow a tiny oxygen exchange with the air outside, but are new enough that we haven't felt comfortable experimenting yet.)

So, next time you hear a winery declare that they've switched entirely to screwcap, or a writer rhapsodize the ceremony of opening a cork-finished bottle, I hope you resist the suggestion that things are so simple.  Rarely in life do either of two options, each with passionate advocates, have a monopoly on the truth.  The debate between cork advocates and screwcap advocates is no different.