Do sulfites matter?
Concerned about all those nasty sulfites in wine?
My advice is simple and blunt: Unless you have been diagnosed by a physician as sulfite-sensitive - and this is a rare affliction - quit worrying about it.
The "contains sulfites" warning label that's required on wines sold in the U.S. (and, as "preservative (220)" in Australia) provokes a lot of concern among wine consumers, who figure that any additive so troublesome that the government needs to warn you about it must be terrible stuff.
The "sulfites" question in our online Wine Lovers' Questionary is one of the most-clicked topics, and I'm constantly fielding E-mail queries about it. Let's devote today's column to a recap of an article that I first wrote on this topic back in 1999.
For most of us, sulfites simply aren't an issue. Simply put, all wines contain sulfites. They occur as a natural byproduct of fermentation, and wine makers have been putting additional sulfites into wine as a natural preservative for millennia. This is true of all wines from all world regions. The absence of a label on bottles of wine sold in Europe doesn't mean that they don't contain sulfites, but simply that regulators in those countries don't require a warning.
The problem comes about because a very small number of people have a dangerous and potentially fatal allergy. But sulfite-sensitive adults already know what they must avoid - a list that includes wine, fruit juice, sausages, salad bars and many other foodstuffs that routinely use sulfiting in production.
Although the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) includes sulfites on its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) list of food additives, it also has required since 1987 that all foodstuffs containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites - which includes virtually all wines - must bear a warning label. The maximum allowable amount in wine, 350 parts per million, is an extreme level, and it is only at such high levels that the sulfur may be perceptible as a pungent aroma resembling a burnt match. (Curiously enough, moreover, although regulators limit sulfites in wine to 350 ppm, some processed foods are permitted up to 6,000 ppm.)
If you get a headache or a stuffy nose after drinking wine, you may be allergic to something - perhaps the histamines in some red wines. But it's not the sulfites.
If you have any reason to think you may be sulfite-sensitive - a history of severe asthma might be a concern - you should certainly seek a doctor's advice, and I would urge you not to drink any more wine until you do so. The number of people afflicted by this allergy is very small, though, so if you've decided that you're sulfite-allergic without medical advice, you might save yourself some worry by checking your concerns with your family physician.
A few wine producers make wines with no added sulfites, and retailers may incorrectly advertise them as "no-sulfite" wines. In fact, there's no such thing. And in my experience, wines made without sulfites - like food made without preservatives - can show some mighty strange flavors.
Today's tasting, one of the better no-sulfites-added wines I've tried, passed my muster as an interesting and palatable wine, but it's significantly idiosyncratic in ways that strongly suggest an unpredictable future for it. When it comes to low-sulfite wines in general, let the buyer beware.
WEB LINK: Prof. Andrew L. Waterhouse, who specializes in enology (wine chemistry) at the University of California at Davis, has a short summary of wine-sulfite issues online at
Michel & Pampilia Guiraud 2001 "Comme à Cayenne" Saint-Chinian ($14.99)
The proprietary name of this Languedoc red, which translates as "like Cayenne," doesn't mean it tastes of peppery fire. It's a joke on the name of a notorious French prison in the Caribbean - underscored by the ball-and-chain on the label - because, the proprietors say, their grandparents had to spend a year at hard labor, breaking up rocks, to build the vineyard. Labeled "contains no added sulfites, contains naturally occurring sulfites," this blend of 85 percent Grenache with Carignan is an inky dark-ruby color in the glass, almost black, showing a hazy ruby glow when held against a light. Underlying plummy aromas show against a complex and shifting backdrop with elements of brown spice, "barnyard" and the sulfury, rubbery, dank notes that suggest "reduction," a happily temporary state that likely results from it having been bottled with care to avoid exposure to oxygen, a necessity in light of its low sulfite content. Flavors are consistent with the nose, plummy fruit and spice with earthy, warm (14% alcohol) notes backed by tangy acidity leading into a long tart-cherry finish. U.S. importer: Hand Picked Selections, Warrenton, Va. (Aug. 30, 2003)
FOOD MATCH: Fine with a pepper-crusted, pan-roasted ribeye steak.
VALUE: The demand for low-sulfite wines seems to have elevated its price, although I've seen it mentioned on the Web as low as $9, which is probably a more appropriate level for a simple Saint-Chinian.
WHEN TO DRINK: The low sulfiting and funky things going on in the wine in the absence of standard preservatives suggest that it may change unpredictably over time. I don't advise cellaring.
WEB LINK: A short fact sheet on Comme a Cayenne is on Page 11 of a large Adobe Acrobat (PDF) file on the importer's Website,
Wine Lovers' Voting Booth:
Delving into wine
Many of us can trace our burgeoning interest in wine back to a single defining moment, an event or individual that fired our enthusiasm and started us down the road of wine appreciation. It might have been a friend or partner who showed us the way ... an intriguing article, or a good book that hooked our attention ... or maybe a casual visit to a winery while traveling, or a drop-in at a wine shop while a tasting going on.
All of us have our own stories about the particular circumstances that got us involved in wine. For this week's Wine Lovers' Voting Booth, we invite you to share them, as we ask, "what first prompted you to delve into the wine world?"
To cast your ballot, you're invited to drop by the Voting Booth,
Tour the world of wine with Robin Garr in 2004
Have you dreamed of touring the world's great vineyards and wineries but held back because the challenge of arranging accommodations, finding meals and getting access to the wine makers and experts at all the wineries seemed too daunting to take on?
Here's an alternative that I hope you'll find appealing: Working in partnership with two top-rank, respected wine-travel companies, I'm planning to host two outstanding wine-region tours early next year.
From Feb. 3-12, I'll host a tour of New Zealand. Working with Wine & Food Trails of Santa Rosa, Calif., our group will visit the top wineries and restaurants and stay at first-class accommodations in Hawkes Bay, Martinborough and Marlborough. We'll learn which local artisan-produced foods pair best with New Zealand's distinct wines, meet their these passionate producers and learn where that passion comes from.
Then, from May 24-30, I'll partner for the third year with our old friends, certified Sommeliers-Conseil Lauriann Greene-Sollin and Jean-Pierre Sollin of French Wine Explorers. Our 2004 trip will cover the great wine regions Burgundy and Champagne, featuring 4-star accommodations, extensive tastings at top wine estates and dinners at some of France's best restaurants.
As always, these tours will be strictly limited in numbers, so if you think you might be interested, I urge you to get in touch with the tour operators early to reserve your place. For summary information and links to both tour organizations' Websites, click to
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This week on WineLoversPage.com
Here are links to some of our recently published articles and features that I hope you'll enjoy:
Nat Decants: When wine goes bad
Eyes closed, you breathe deeply, searching for the exotic aromas of Pinot Noir. Instead, an acrid smell jabs its way up your nostrils ... Is it you or the wine? It's probably the wine ... But how can you be sure? Award-winning wine writer Natalie MacLean sorts things out in "When Bad Wine Happens to Good People,"
Bucko's Wine Reports: 100 new wines
Last Week's Wine Advisor Index
The Wine Advisor's daily edition is usually distributed on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays (and, for those who subscribe, the FoodLetter on Thursdays). Here's the index to last week's columns:
Wine-shipping advocates win two (Aug. 29, 2003) http://www.wineloverspage.com/wineadvisor/tswa030829.phtml
Two California Favorites: Mosby and Madrigal (Aug. 27, 2003)
California Dreamin' (Aug. 25, 2003)
Complete 30 Second Wine Advisor archive:
Wine Advisor FoodLetter: Pasta al sugo di fegatini (Aug. 28, 2003)
Wine Advisor Foodletter archive:
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Monday, Sept. 1, 2003