Having worked in a retail wine store for some years now, I am asked many of the same questions over and over. And even though I’ve written about many of these same topics and issues before in this column, I figure it can’t hurt to reiterate my take on some of the most frequently asked questions supplied by wine drinkers.
Q: Are sulfites what cause the headaches I get from wine?
A: Probably not.
This is perhaps the question I get the most often, and it’s one of the most misunderstood aspects of wine. Less than 1 percent of the population is allergic to sulfites, and when those allergic people ingest sulfites, the effects are more serious than a mere headache: throat closure, swelling, hives and the like. Sulfites appear in much higher concentrations in a lot of other foods we eat and that are not commonly thought to cause headaches, such as dried fruit.
So what is the source of the headache? Alcohol is the obvious culprit. Our bodies’ chemistries vary each time we drink. On one day, three glasses of wine may have no effect. But on another day, a mere glass may render the morning after miserable. Histamines contained in the skins of the grapes are another suspect, as they are a much more common allergen than sulfites. So don’t sweat the sulfites. Try wines with low-volume histamines (such as white wines or reds from thin-skinned grapes like pinot noir, tempranillo or gamay).
Q: Are all rosés/shirazes/merlots/rieslings/gewurztraminers/etc. sweet?
A: Wines are like people; there may be some reasoning behind generalizations and stereotypes, but many are outdated and preclude the individual nature of a wine.
Because the fermentation process converts the naturally occurring sugars in wine into alcohol, a winemaker can make a wine as sweet or as dry as he likes by either stopping fermentation before all the sugar has been converted (resulting in some sweetness in the wine) or, conversely, allowing all the sugar to convert (leaving no sugar in the wine). In the past, sugar was sometimes added to wine, but that practice is much more rare now and is usually only done in the most mundane, mass-marketed wines — the result of research showing that most consumers prefer sweet wines.
So, how do you know how sweet or dry the bottle’s contents will be? The easiest way to make an educated guess is to look at the alcohol percentage. If it’s under 11.5 percent, chances are that not all the sugar was allowed to convert to alcohol, and the wine will have a bit of sweetness. This rule can get tricky when you’re dealing with grapes that got extremely ripe, as happens in hot, dry climates like parts of Australia, Spain or California. The riper the grapes, the more sugar they contain, and for all the sugar to be converted, you might end up with an alcohol percentage that is over 15 percent, quite high for a table wine. Many winemakers don’t want their wine to have such a high percentage of alcohol, and thus some sugar remains unfermented.
Trends may help you figure out whether a wine will be sweet, but beware.
Fashions change quickly. Whereas merlots used to be made in a slightly sweet style to appeal to beginners who were the largest market, now the beginners find pinot noir fashionable, and the wine world has responded. For awhile there, we were tasting some very sweet pinots. Meanwhile, many merlot makers have decided to go back to a more traditional, dry style, based on the highly renowned merlot-based wines of Bordeaux. Riesling, a grape long associated with sickly sweet wines like Blue Nun, is now often seen in an extremely dry, or “trocken,” style.
As you can see, it’s a tough thing to suss out. These tips can help, but the best way to know if a wine will be sweet or not is to ask a sales assistant at your local shop, who likely has tried the wine.
Q: What should I pair with dinner?
A: Whatever you want to drink.
Seriously, enjoying what you’re drinking is the most important thing. If you can match flavors, that’s great. But if you love the wine, you’ll be happy even if the actual food pairing isn’t a match made in epicurean heaven. As you become more familiar with more wines, pairing becomes easier. The general rules, which are not set in stone by any means, are as follows:
- Pair weight to weight. A heavy meal needs a heavy wine; a light meal requires a light wine.
- Spicy food needs a sweet or fruity wine to temper the heat.
- Pair place with place. Having linguine with clams and a white wine sauce? You can’t go wrong with a white wine from one of Italy’s many coastal regions. Having chicken roasted with herbs de provence? A red from southern France will do the trick. I’d like to think that a region’s food evolved partly due to what kinds of wines were available, but it may be the other way around. Either way, eat and drink like the locals, and you’ll be in good shape.
- Bubbly goes with everything! A no-fail plan, and it makes every day festive. Don’t we always have something to toast? And you can find great bubbly from Spain’s Cava region for less than $15. Cheers!