Cork Versus Screw Cap

Corks have been the traditional choice since the 1400’s for preserving wine. Cork bark is one of the few natural products that is malleable enough to hold the contents inside a glass bottle.  However, today there is great debate as to whether cork is actually the best way to preserve wine.  The most prominent opponent is the screw cap.

Photo credit: wineanorak.com

The pro cork side of the debate usually begins with the fact that tradition dictates that cork is the way to go.  It has been in use for hundreds of years.  Screw caps on the other hand are a 20th Century invention.  

For many of the more mature members of our society there is a sense of enchantment in maintaining tradition, including the ritual of uncorking a bottle of wine, which adds to the enjoyment and experience.

Cork bark is a natural ingredient, as well as a renewable resource. Cork is harvested from the bark of cork trees, which continually replenish themselves.

One of the properties of cork is that it does not have a completely airtight seal, which allows the wine to slowly oxidize in the bottle. This oxidization allows the wine to continue to age while it sits in the cellar, developing more complex flavours over time.

The down side of using cork is that cork allows cork taint, otherwise known as TCA or Trichloroanisole, a flaw that can happen when a wine is exposed to a particular yeast during production. If you’ve ever swirled and sniffed a glass of wine and smelled something like wet dog, then you have experienced cork taint. Because corks are permeable, bottles sealed by a cork can be vulnerable to damage.

Another downside to cork is the cost as cork is more expensive than screw caps.

Finally, there is the irritation you feel when the cork breaks off or crumbles into your wine when you try to open the bottle.  To help prevent this from happening, the bottles need to be stored horizontally in order to keep the corks moist.

In the past, screw caps were associated with cheaper wines since they are less expensive than corks and were the obvious choice for budget-friendly wines. However, those days are long gone. Screw caps have their own benefits, so some high-end wineries have abandoned the cork. Some winemakers even prefer them to cork.

Screw caps do not allow TCA to occur in the wine after bottling. This doesn’t mean the wine is always free of TCA, since it can be exposed prior to bottling, but it does mean if it hasn’t happened before bottling there is no chance of exposure until it is opened.

Screw caps are much easier to open. A cork screw is not required so that means one less thing to pack when travelling.

On the down side, the airtight protection that is provided by a screw cap prevents the wine from breathing and slows down the aging process.

Also, while screw caps are recyclable they are neither biodegradable nor are they made from a renewable resource.  They typically include PVDC plastic which is made from petroleum, making them a far less eco-friendly option.

Ongoing innovation in wine packaging means that natural cork and screw caps are not the only two options for bottle enclosure and storage. Plastic, can, cardboard and plant-based polymer cork are now being introduced into the marketplace.

While natural cork adds character, heritage and custom to your wine experience but is not necessarily a reflection of quality. Screw caps are a convenient modern option, but they have their own drawbacks.

You will have to decide for yourself which you prefer. Personally, it is the wine itself that determines whether I buy it, not whether it is sealed with a cork or a screw cap.

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Sugar Levels in Champagne & Other Sparkling Wines

Given that that New Year’s is fast approaching it seems like a good time to talk about sparkling wines; in particular the amount of sweetness in these wines.  Sweetness levels range from super dry to very sweet. Because of this extreme variation, the experts have developed a standardized sweetness scale that has been divided into seven levels.

Photo credit: ScientificAmerican.com

The sweetness level varies due to a step in the wine making process referred to as “liqueur d’expedition” where producers add a small amount of grape must (sugar) before corking the bottle. Since sparkling wine is so acidic, the sweetness is added in order to reduce sour flavours in the final product.

The sweetness scale for sparkling wines consists of the following levels:

Brut Nature (Brut Zero)

  • 0-3 grams (g) of natural residual sugar (RS) / litre (L)
  • 0-2 calories and up to 0.15 carbs for a total of 91–93 calories per 5 oz. (~150 ml) serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Extra Brut

  • 0-6 g/L RS
  • 0-6 calories and up to 0.9 carbs per 5 oz. (~150 ml) serving for a total of 91–96 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Brut

  • 0-12 g/L RS
  • 0-7 calories and up to 1.8 carbs per 5 oz. (~150 ml) serving for a total of 91–98 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Extra Dry

  • 12-17 g/L RS
  • 7-10 calories and 1.8–2.6 carbs per 5 oz. (~150 ml) serving for a total of 98–101 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Dry (Secco)

  • 17-32 g/L RS
  • 10-19 calories and 2.6–4.8 carbs per 5 oz (~150 ml) serving for a total of 101–111 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Demi-Sec

  • 32-50 g/L RS
  • 19-30 calories and 4.8–7.5 carbs per 5 oz (~150 ml) serving for a total of 111–121 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Doux

  • 50+ g/L RS
  • 30+ calories and more than 7.5 carbs per 5 oz (~150 ml) serving for a total of more than 121 calories per serving of 12 % ABV sparkling wine.

Brut has a fair amount of variation in sweetness, whereas Extra Brut and Brut Nature have focused sugar content. Therefore, if a dryer wine is your preference it is best to select either an Extra Brut or Brut Nature wine.

Something to keep in mind when considering the sweetness of sparkling wine is how little sugar is required to make it taste sweet.  The amount of sugar in these wines is comparatively low to other beverages.

Drink Comparison (sugar levels in grams)

  • 0 g in Vodka Soda
  • 0.5 g in Brut Nature Sparkling Wine
  • 2 g in Brut Sparkling Wine
  • 8 g in Demi-Sec Sparkling Wine
  • 14 g in Gin & Tonic
  • 16 g in Honest Tea Green Tea
  • 17 g in Starbucks 2% Milk Grande Latte
  • 20 g  in Margarita on the rocks (made w/ simple syrup)
  • 33 g in Rye & Coke

Happy Holidays!

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The Chill Factor

At the time I was introduced to the world of wine I was told that white wine was to be served chilled straight from the fridge and red wine drank at room temperature.  However, since then I have learned that the serving temperature of wine is much more complex than that. 

Photo credit: Food52.com

Research has discovered that when wine is served at the proper temperature it is much more enjoyable.  When determining serving temperature we need to look beyond just the colour of the wine to the type or varietal of the wine.  Serving wine at the right temperature will provide the intended flavour, character and bouquet of the wine.

However, let’s not go crazy here; determining the serving temperature of wine is by no means an exact science.  There isn’t an exact optimal temperature for any particular wine.  A difference of a couple of degrees won’t affect your taste experience.

When considering serving red wine at “room temperature”, what most people don’t realize is that room temperature has actually changed over time as building construction and materials have changed.  At one time room temperature would have been a drafty damp 13o to 16oCelsius versus today’s average temperature of 20o to 23o Celsius. That is a significant change.  If you normally serve your red wine at room temperature try chilling it in the fridge for 15 minutes prior to serving and see whether you prefer it chilled or not.

White wines on the other hand can be served too cold.  If the wine is served too cold then both the flavour and bouquet may be stifled; but if served too warm they are not enjoyable either.  White wine is best served between 7o and 10o Celsius.

The following chart indicates the suggested serving temperature for a number of the more common varietals of wine, as recommended by the experts:

VarietalServing Temperature (oC)Time in Fridge
Champagne/Sparkling Wine7 – 1030 – 40 minutes
Chardonnay1030 minutes
Pinot Gris/Pinot Grigio7 – 1030 – 40 minutes
Riesling7 – 1030 – 40 minutes
Sauvignon Blanc7 – 1030 – 40 minutes
Viognier1030 minutes
White Bordeaux Blends1030 minutes
Rosé1030 minutes
Cabernet Franc1620 minutes
Cabernet Sauvignon16 – 1815 – 20 minutes
Malbec16 – 1815 – 20 minutes
Merlot16 – 1815 – 20 minutes
Pinot Noir13 – 1615 – 20 minutes
Red Bordeaux Blends16 – 1815 – 20 minutes
Syrah/Shiraz16 – 1815 – 20 minutes
Zinfandel16 – 1815 – 20 minutes

Remember, these are suggestions only.  You can try experimenting serving your wine at varying temperatures and see what works best for you.

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Good Inexpensive Wine

What is considered cheap or inexpensive depends on who the consumer is. It is a very relative term.  For example, to some people an inexpensive wine is one with a price point under $50, for others it may be one under $10.  The definition of inexpensive or cheap is as individual as the person making the purchase.  For the purposes of this discussion, I am considering a value of under $20 as an inexpensive bottle of wine. 

If a wine is too cheap there are those who believe that profit is being achieved mainly by producing large volumes sacrificing quality.  Producers operating in this manner have minimal control over the quality of the grapes or the manner in which they are produced.     Under these circumstances vintners purchase grapes from a number of different growers whom they have limited or no influence over how the grapes are produced.   However, each producer should be judged on their own merits.

I love the challenge of scoping out good inexpensive wines, especially those that need to mature for a few years before enjoying.

Finding the Diamond in the Rough

There is certainly some luck involved in finding great inexpensive wines but there are ways of putting the odds in your favour.  The clues are often right under your nose starting with the label on the bottle.  Don’t forget to check out the label on the back of the bottle as well.  The label will provide the name of the vintner and often identify the varietal(s).  Selecting a varietal you enjoy will increase the odds of you selecting a wine to your taste.

It will also identify any quality designation that the wine has been provided by the nation where the wine was produced.

The country of origin will also provide clues as to the wine’s flavour and intensity.  Generally speaking, wines produced in hotter climates have more intense flavour.

The label will also display any sustainability or organic qualifications that the wine has.

Information regarding the wines offered for sale will often be provided by the seller.  Look for information in brochures, catalogues, or stock cards that may be available in the store or on the merchant’s web site. 

Many wineries have their own web site which may provide detailed information pertaining to the various wines they produce, including such information as the varietal(s) contained, how the wine was aged, tannin content, acid levels, etc., all of which impact the flavour and help determine if the wine may be a good fit for you.

However, when all else fails or you like to select wines solely on how the label inspires you, simply standing and gazing at the wines on the shelf may be the only information you need.  This is how my wife does it and though I am aghast at this process I cannot argue with her success rate.  Her most recent victory was in selecting a 2019 Fantini Sangiovese which is now our general house wine.  The price is a whopping $8.95.

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Wine Bottle Profiles

Have you ever noticed the variety of shapes and colours of wine bottles?  Have you ever wondered whether there is any rhyme or reason for this?  The differences in wine bottle shapes are purely regional variations that have more to do with glassblowing techniques than the flavours of the wine.  

The Pinot Noir or Pinot Gris bottle shape differs from a Cabernet Sauvignon or Sauvignon Blanc bottle shape.  Bottles are deliberately shaped a certain way in order that the region of origin may be identified.  Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Chardonnay are presented in a Burgundy shaped bottle with less pronounced shoulders that slope downward. On the other hand, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot are presented in a Bordeaux shaped bottle, which has distinct, high shoulders and a deep punt on the bottom of the bottle.

There’s no scientific reason why you couldn’t put Pinot Noir in a Bordeaux bottle, but vintners around the world still use the traditional wine bottle shapes for the region with which their wines are associated. For most, it’s simply a matter of tradition. But it also makes it easy for people to identify different types of wine by sight. Bottles are colored differently for the same reason.

While there are innumerable varieties of wine available in the market, the bottles themselves generally fall into a few specific shapes. There are 12 basic shapes of wine bottles.

Bordeaux

It’s the most common shape of bottle and as the name indicates, it originated in Bordeaux. It has straight sides and distinct shoulders. The bottle is generally dark green or brown for red wines and light green or transparent for white wines.  There is a good reason for the colour difference.  The coloured glass protects red wines from the sun’s rays, and a transparent bottle improves the colour of white wines.

This type of bottle is used for a variety of grapes, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Sauternes.

Burgundy

The burgundy bottle was introduced in Burgundy around the 19th century, before the Bordeaux bottle. This bottle has sloping shoulders and the colour of the glass is green. The grape varietals stored in a burgundy shaped bottle include Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Nebbiolo and Pinot Gris.

Albeisa

This bottle originated from Langhe, Piedmont, Italy. It was first used near the beginning of the 18th century. It looks similar to the Burgundy bottle and is used for the great red wines of Piedmont, such as Barolo and Barbaresco.

Côtes de Provence

The shape of the bottle is a mix between a Greek amphora vessel and a bowling pin. It’s the typical bottle for the wines of Côtes de Provence, which includes a variety of rosés and reds. In Italy, it’s used for Verdicchio wine.

The glass for this type of bottle is typically transparent or light green in the case of Verdicchio wines.

Alsace

Alsace bottles are taller and thinner in shape compared to the other bottles.  They have gently sloping shoulders. The colour is green for German wines and brown for French. The main grape contained in this type of bottle is Riesling.

Champagne

Champagne bottles are unique because they need to withstand up to 90 psi of pressure of the sparkling wines contained within them. It’s also heavier and thicker, with a hollow bottom. The shape looks similar to the Burgundy bottle. The colour is usually varying shades of green, ranging from light to dark.

Tokaji

This shape is used for Hungarian Tokaji and it has a capacity of 0.5 litres. The glass is transparent.

Port

A Port bottle is typically used for Port, Madeira and Sherry wines. The bottle has a bulb in the neck, which is intended to trap excess sediment during the pouring. The colour of the glass can be varying shades of green or brown.

Marsala

A Marsala bottle looks similar to the Port bottle but it is higher and thinner. It’s used for Marsala wine. The glass is typically dark brown or black in colour.

Clavelin

This bottle is short, stocky and heavily built. It’s the only bottle authorized for Vin Jaune. Its capacity is 0.62litre.  Vin Jaune (French for “yellow wine”) is a special and characteristic type of white wine made in the Jura region of France. It is similar to dry fino Sherry.

Bocksbeutel

Bocksbeutel is completely different from the other wine bottle shapes; it is a flattened ellipsoid. The glass is a dark green colour.  It’s used for the red wines of Germany’s Franconia region, some Portuguese wines, and Italy’s Orvieto wines. This particular shape is protected under the European Union.

Chianti

This is the old bottle of Chianti wine which is no longer in use. The bottle gave a rustic aspect to the wine. It was round, so it required a basket to allow it to stand upright on the table. The capacity was about 2 litres.  Once empty these bottles were often used as candlesticks.

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Wine Recommendations

Over the past few weeks I have been asked several times for recommendations for wines that can be obtained from the local liquor store.  The truth is I can’t really suggest any particular wine as I don’t tend to favour any particular winery.  Instead I usually select my wines from the Vintages section at the LCBO.  I do this for a couple of reasons.  First the LCBO has a rule whereby in order for a wine to appear on the regular shelves it has to be available on an ongoing basis.  This restricts the suppliers to only the largest producers; those who often purchase grapes from a wide variety of growers thus increasing the risk of producing an inconsistent product.  Also because these wineries have become so well-known, some of them over-charge for the quality of the product produced.

The challenge with the Vintages section is that many of the wines brought in are in limited supply with new releases appearing every 2 weeks.  The wines are often from estate wineries that produce smaller and limited volumes. Thus if you are seeking wine from a specific winery you may go months or even years before it reappears on the shelves.  I have found that I have been very rarely disappointed in any of my Vintage purchases.  What I focus on is the grape varietal or the region the wine comes from rather than who the vintner is.

I find the LCBO’s Vintages magazine, a bi-weekly production that identifies and provides reviewer notes and comments about the various wines being released, to be very informative.  It provides the necessary details I need to assist me with my purchasing decisions.  Helpful information includes the name of the vintner, varietal(s), tasting notes, suitability for cellaring, and of course, the price.  If you have questions or need assistance in making a decision as to which wine to buy, the staff are very informative and helpful.

The price of wine in the Vintages section is no more expensive than those found on the regular shelves but dollar for dollar I find them a better value.  Personally, I am a big fan of Italian Barolo, Valpolicella and Chianti; French wines from the Rhône and Bordeaux regions; Rieslings from Germany’s Mosel region; Spanish wine from Rioja; and a wide variety of wines from Ontario and BC. 

Due to COVID-19 there have been challenges in the liquor stores receiving many of the wines they expected; or if they have received the wines they are sometimes of a lesser quantity than anticipated.  On more than one occasion during recent months have I been unable to acquire many of the wines I was hoping for.  One week the liquor store received only two of the seven wines I was looking for and on another occasion they received none of my desired selections.

These are challenging times.

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Shopping for Wine Online

During these difficult times, and trying to minimize my contact with crowds, I have become a fan of online shopping through the LCBO.  My overall results have been favourable and my selections are not limited to the products available at any particular store.

My closest liquor store is located in a small town about 10 km. from where I live.  For obvious reasons the selection of items available there is rather limited.  However, online shopping provides me with a full range of products that I can order and then pick up at my local store. The online price is the same as the in store price and all orders of $50 or more are shipped free of charge.

Online shopping provides other opportunities as well.  Many Canadian wineries offer websites with online ordering capability. If you have a favourite wine that you can’t purchase locally, you may find that it is available direct from the winery via their website.  There is no price difference whether you pick the wine up at the winery or order it from their website.  Many wineries offer free shipping with a minimum size order.

There are several online companies that also make both Canadian and international wines available online.  These companies work on a different premise than wine clubs (see my post from October 3, 2020).  These companies simply provide a wide selection of wines for sale at varying prices.  In order to get free shipping you may have to buy up to 12 bottles, though they don’t need to be all of the same type of wine.

Although it isn’t common, bottles may arrive broken. However, if it does occur, the provider will replace or refund any portion of your order that was damaged. An extra advantage of dealing with the LCBO is that if goods were damaged on arrival at the store they are replaced before you pick up your order.  No fuss no muss.

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Wine Myths and Facts

There are quite a few myths about wine that although often widely believed, are not true.  Below are some of the more common myths.

Only expensive wine is good

Blind tastings consistently disprove this myth. There is virtually no connection between how much a wine costs and how much people like it. In fact, a study of over 6,000 blind wine tasting comparisons found the correlation between price and overall rating to be insignificant.

The price of wine is not an indication of quality.  It is mainly supply and demand rather than actual quality that determines the price. Demand for a specific wine is influenced by things such as advertising, press coverage, and even association with celebrities. The perception of quality includes tradition, fad, and many other factors. 

For more in depth information see my June 8, 2019 blog entitled “Does Wine Have to be Expensive to be Good?”.

‘Reserve’ wines are superior to other wines

Producers may consider some of their wine to be superior and label it ‘Reserve’ or another term in order to distinguish it from their other wines and to command a higher price.

Blind tastings of regular and ‘reserve’ wines from the same producer and year have failed at being able to distinguish between them.  Of those who correctly identified the ‘reserve’, only about half preferred it over the non-reserve wine.  The reserve labels were generally much more expensive than the non-reserve wines.

Corks are better than screw caps

Long-term research has proven that in fact the opposite is true; screw caps are far superior to corks in protecting wine.

Some experts believe that about one of every ten to twelve corked bottles of wine suffers ‘cork taint’. Cork taint causes the wine to smell like wet newspapers or a damp basement. It is caused by trichloroanisole (TCA) bacterium.

I must admit that my own experience has shown a much lower percentage of tainted wine.  However, I believe the statistic is as high as it is because cork taint is contained within the cork itself.  Thus it is most likely that all of the corks produced from a specific cork tree or section of a tree, will be defective thus potentially ruining many cases of wine all at once.

Some wineries, like Australia’s Peter Lehmann, use screwcaps exclusively, except for wines being exported to the United States. The majority of the world’s notarized wines are bottled with cork, but that has more to do with perception than science.

Only red wine has health benefits

The health benefits associated with moderate wine consumption comes from the alcohol. Some research finds red wine provides greater health benefits. Other research reports that any wine provides benefit. Other studies find that beer is best. Yet other studies indicate that distilled spirits are the most beneficial. However, most research has found that it makes little or no difference. The most beneficial ingredient in alcoholic beverages seems to be the alcohol itself and the health benefits are substantial.

Organic wines have no sulfites

The fact is all wines contain sulfites as they are a natural result of fermentation. Sulfites are also commonly added to prevent oxidation, help preserve and to stabilize the wine. Organic wines have no added sulfites as stated on their labels. 

For additional information see my August 8, 2020 blog “Organic Wine”.

Wine improves with age and aged wine is better than young wine

There’s no reason to age the vast majority of wines. About 90% of wine is produced to be consumed when purchased. Further aging may change the taste, bouquet, and finish of the wine, and not in a good way.

Also, aging with the hope of improving a wine’s defects is impossible. Defective wine will always be defective. Organic wines deteriorate much quicker than other wines as they have no added sulfites to help preserve them.

There is a perfect time to drink any wine worth cellaring.  Most wines, even cellar-worthy ones, are delicious upon release. The better wines will age well for up to a decade. Occasionally some wines will need a decade or more to reach their peak. However, it is always better to drink a wine a year too soon than a day too late.

See “Drink or lay down and how to cellar those you keep” from August 24, 2019 for additional details.

Wine legs are a sign of quality

It’s sometimes said that ‘the thicker the legs, the better the wine’. Wine legs are the “tears” that flow down the inside surface of a wine glass after it has been swirled. Contrary to myth, legs are not an indicator of quality. 

They are created by the alcohol content of the wine and the effects of surface tension, adhesion and evaporation. The alcohol, because it has a lower surface tension, tends to crawl up the glass. At the same time, it evaporates faster than the water in the wine because of its lower boiling point. As more alcohol evaporates, the water concentration increases. The greater surface tension of the water causes the wine to pull together into a teardrop that then runs down the inside of the glass.

Smelling the cork reveals if the wine is bad

Smelling a cork won’t give any information about the quality or condition of the wine. Smelling the wine itself tells whether or not it has spoiled.

Red wine should be served at room temperature and white wine should be served ice-cold

You’ve probably heard the idea that red wine should be served room temperature while white wine should be served ice cold. In reality, though, if the wines are good, you’ll achieve the best results if both red and white wines are served in between ice cold and room temperature. If white wine is served too cold, you won’t be able to taste the nuances in its flavor, and if red wine is served too close to room temperature, it could taste flat. When it doubt, chill your wine but be careful not to make it too cold. 

Red wine should be served at about 18 degrees Celsius whereas white wine should be served at a temperature between 10 and 13 degrees Celsius.

Closing thoughts

Wine myths continue to fool us. They are perceptions, not reality.  However, as is often said, perception is reality.

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The Variable Health Benefit in Red Wine

A recent study of 16 wines from Australia and New Zealand has found levels of healthy antioxidants in red grapes decreased significantly over time.  Researchers say the compound called trans-resveratrol that is found in red wine is proven to have cardiovascular, anti-inflammatory, and anti-diabetic effects.  The more you consume of this compound in your food or beverages it is believed to better improve your health. 

When comparing younger bottled wines to mature red wines as the wine ages the concentration of this important bioactive compound decreases by about 75% over a 16-month period.  This is a significant decrease in the concentration of this health-benefiting compound.

The study published in the Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research found the concentration decreased in some wines by as much as 96%.  Irrespective of which winery the red wine came from or which variety it was, the loss was the same.

The popularity of younger red wines has increased greatly as millennials show a preference for younger wines than their parents do.  The younger generation’s philosophy is buy now, drink now or in a casual situation in a bar or bistro, drink by the glass.

The over 55 age group still consume a lot of full-bodied reds compared to the younger generations who want something that’s vibrant and fresh, not old and with a higher alcohol content.  The increased popularity of younger wine is due to a generational change rather than for health benefits.  The popularity of these wines has grown dramatically in the past 10 years.

However, being a member of the 55 plus crowd, I am a big fan of full-bodied aged wines that have had the opportunity to mellow and become silky smooth in a way that only time can achieve.  I am not saying I don’t like young fresh wines; I just don’t want a steady diet of them.  For example, if I am having food paired with a Pinot Noir, such as salmon or roast chicken, I want to experience the fresh lively taste.

On the other hand, if I am having roast beef, rack of lamb, Boeuf Bourguignon, or lasagna, there is nothing better than a well-aged Cabernet Sauvignon or Barolo.  In certain situations I am willing to sacrifice the health benefits in favour of flavour.

If I am simply having a glass of wine to sip on, I equally enjoy a young fresh red and a mellow aged one. Case in point; we had friends over recently with whom we share an equal appreciation for the Niagara region’s now defunct Coyote’s Run Winery (see my May 26, 2019 post, “The Passing of an Old Friend”). We enjoyed a cherry-red 2015 Cabernet Franc, as well as a smoky dark 2010 vintage of the same varietal. Both were very enjoyable. 

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Organic Wine

Even though organic food seems to be trending and very popular these days, it makes up only 5% of total vineyard space worldwide.  Spain, France and Italy represent 73% of all organic vineyards in the world.

Some common organic symbols

What Determines if a Wine is Organic?

Simply stated, organic wines are produced with organically grown grapes. In order to have organically grown grapes, a vineyard manager must implement an entirely different set of practices to maintain their vines. They generally must exclude the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides.

Organic wine grapes are said to be much healthier and therefore produce heartier skins and higher concentrations of anthocyanins and antioxidants, including polyphenols and cardio-friendly resveratrol.  Also, organic wines are free of residual traces of vineyard additives such as chemical laced pesticides and herbicides.

Certified organic wines also have less sugar on average and don’t contain potentially harmful cellar additives such as flavoring agents or caramel coloring. These additives, plus higher sugar levels are what can cause wine-related headaches.

It is important to keep in mind that being organic doesn’t mean that the wine doesn’t have additives. There is a list of ingredients, such as  yeast, egg whites, and animal enzymes that are permitted in organic wines. Being organic doesn’t necessarily mean a wine is vegan.

The Organic Wine Dilemma

The challenge with organic wine is that the definition of organic can vary from one country to another.  The dilemma with organic wines is the importance of sulphur-dioxide (SO2), often referred to as sulfites, in the winemaking process.  Sulfites are used as a preservative.  Without them wine has a very short shelf life.

In both Australia and the United States, by definition organic wine cannot include sulfites.  However, in Europe and Canada, sulfites are permitted on organic wine.  This puts Australia and the US at a disadvantage not just because of the wines reduced shelf life but it can also substantially change the flavour of the wine.  Such wineries find themselves in a quandary because the effort made in growing organic grapes is nullified by the use of sulfites in the bottling process.

This raises the next question; are sulfites bad?

Sulfites have no effect on the majority of wine drinkers.  They are generally not the cause of red wine headaches.  However, there are some exceptions.  5% to 10% of asthma sufferers are sensitive to sulfites.

Sulfites in wine are surprisingly lower than in a lot of processed foods.  Wine ranges from about 5 mg per litre (5 parts per million) to about 200 mg per litre. The maximum legal limit is 350 mg per litre. In comparison, a decent dry red wine typically contains about 50 mg per litre of sulfites.

Wines with lower acidity need more sulfites than higher acidity wines. Also red wines tend to need less sulfites than white wines. A typical dry white wine will often contain around 100 mg per litre of sulfites whereas a typical dry red wine will have 50 to 75 mg per litre.

Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulfites to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.

Sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions which cause wine to spoil. The process of using sulfites in wine has been around as far back as ancient Rome.

Very sensitive tasters have been noted to smell sulfur compounds in wine, although sulfur compounds are somewhat unrelated to sulfites. Sulfur compounds in wine range in flavour from citrus-like smells to cooked egg-like smells.  The warmer the temperature of the wine, the more molecular sulfur it releases. This is why some wines may have a cooked-egg aroma when they are opened. This can be resolved by decanting the wine and chilling for about 15 to 30 minutes.

For individuals who have sensitivity to sulfites in foods such as french fries, cured meats, cheese, and canned soup, they should probably opt for sulfite-free wines. Fortunately, several natural wines do not use sulfites in their processing. These wines can taste a lot different than normal wine but some are very good.  It is good to note as well that organic wines are similarly priced to non-organic wines.

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