Friday, December 31, 2021

Sauternes, A Sweet Miracle from Noble Rot

It has been a heck of a year. For better or for worse, it is time to wrap it up. What better way than to finish 2021 with something sweet. Let’s talk about Sauternes (pronounced saw-turn in anglicized fashion or soh-tèrn in French).

Sauternes by Jeff Burrows on Unsplash

Ask any wine connoisseur about Sauternes, and the prized Château d’Yquem (pronounced di-kim) comes to mind. Hailed from southern Bordeaux, Château d’Yquem is the sole wine that is designated Superior First Growth (or Premier Cru Supérieur) from the 1855 Bordeaux Wine Classification commissioned by Emperor Napoleon III. While the classification of red Bordeaux runs from first to fifth growths, the classification of white Bordeaux has only three tiers: Superior First, First, and Second. 

What exactly is Sauternes?

Sauternes is a sweet white wine from the Bordeaux region of the same name. The grapes that make up Sauternes are predominantly Sémillon for lusciousness and Sauvignon Blanc for crisp acidity. A small amount of Muscadelle is sometimes blended in. What makes Sauternes special is the concentrated sweetness induced by noble rot.

Noble Rot on Sémillon by John Yesberg

Noble rot is caused by the beneficial fungus known as Botrytis cinerea. Under ideal weather conditions, the grey fungus infects ripe grapes in misty mornings, puncturing the skins. This then allows for water to evaporate from the grapes as the temperature rises in the afternoons. The succession of alternating moist and dry conditions concentrates the sugar content in the partially raisined grapes. Carefully handpicked, these grapes are then used to make intensely sweet wines, also known as botrytized wines. Other famous botrytized wines include the Hungarian Tokaji and the German Trockenbeerenauslese.

How to enjoy Sauternes?

Typically running north of $300 for a 750-ml bottle, Château d’Yquem is hardly your weeknight sweet wine. Thankfully, there are many high-quality Sauternes that do not break the bank and in which one can guiltlessly indulge. I snagged a half-bottle of 2011 Château Coutet for a mere $28. And with the Coravin wine preservation system, I can taste it over time as a little sweet wine goes a long way.

2011 Château Coutet
From the Barsac commune of Sauternes-Barsac appellation, Château Coutet is designated as a First Growth (or Premier Cru). A pale liquid gold with sexy viscosity, the Sauternes smells of honey and citrus fruit. The taste of honey extends to the palate with layers of marmalade, burnt caramel, and tart apple. It is luscious with bright acidity that lingers in the mouth.

While one may be tempted to only have Sauternes with dessert, the wine actually works really well with savory too. As an experiment, we decided to taste the Sauternes with two savories and two sweets. While they are all winners, here’s the order of our favorites.

#1 Foie Gras

Foie gras is considered the classic pairing for Sauternes, and I can now relate to that better with my palate than with my mind. It would seem that something as rich as foie gras would be too much for Sauternes, but it worked. The high acidity in the Sauternes makes for a nice counterbalance to the dish, while the herbal aromatics complement with it. It is our number one choice too.

Foie gras
#2 Salted Caramel Panna Cotta

Creamy and light, the salted caramel panna cotta matches well with the sweet opulence and crisp acidity of Sauternes. I would have preferred to pick a fruit-based panna cotta, but it is winter and those are hard to come by. Still, this is our second favorite of the pairings as the salty caramel creaminess of the panna cotta blends with the luscious burnt caramel of the Sauternes.

Salted caramel panna cotta
#3 Chocolate Truffles 

I would have been content with Sauternes and chocolate truffles had I not been aware of other possibilties. Despite the contrary opinions of other more discerning palates, I actually enjoy Sauternes with creamy chocolate truffles, preferably dark rich ones with no other fillings. But it did land third place when compared to the other pairings, not that I would shy from it.

Chocolate truffles

#4 Cambozola

I had expected this to be higher in the ranking as I love this creamy mild-flavored blue cheese. It is still good with Sauternes but lands at fourth place. Continuing with the theme of rich creamy food, the Cambozola matches with the Sauternes in its richness and is counterbalanced by the latter’s high acidity. The slight bitterness of the blue cheese also matches with the tinge of pithiness of the Sauternes. That said, I think I’m going to try pairing Sauternes with a sharper blue, like Roquefort or a Stilton, at another time.


My Verdict: Sauternes and other botrytized wines are in some ways a miracle that rose from a place of rot. As we close out a tumultuous year that is 2021, let’s choose hope and possibilities as we navigate our own personal Botrytis. Perhaps the sweet ending of this year will lead to the sweet beginning of the next.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Que Syrah, Syrah, Syrah

Perhaps it was the pandemic. Or perhaps I had been in a winemaking rut. Nonetheless I decided to shake things up this year. The outcome? From a single Syrah grape variety, I ended up with three wines: a red, a rosé, and a pétillant-naturel (also known as pét-nat). Let me share my journey.

One grape, three wines

An Order of Doble Pasta Please!

After making only red wine for the past five years (along with all the rookie mistakes), I wanted to experiment with doble pasta to give my wine more concentrated flavors and depth. Far from the carb-laden name, doble pasta is really a winemaking technique where the crushed grapes are fermented with extra skins and pulp to extract a higher intensity of flavors, color, and tannins.  

Hailed from Spain, doble pasta is practiced in the southeastern wine regions of Alicante, Jumilla, Utiel-Requeña, and Yecla. There, the crushed grapes are traditionally macerated with twice the amount of grape skins and pulp, hence the word doble, while retaining the same amount of juice. 

Free run juice from half the grapes

My Syrah grapes arrived in mid September, freshly harvested from the vineyard that morning. After the grapes had been de-stemmed and macerated for a couple of hours, I put half the grapes into the basket press and let gravity draw out the free-run juice. I was careful to retain the tannins, anthocyanins, and other flavonoids in the skins and pulp to be added to my other half of the grapes that were macerating in a separate fermenter. My own doble pasta!

It would appear that doble pasta also meant doble cap. Cap refers to the crushed grapes that rise to the top of the juice during alcoholic fermentation. Typically, the winemaker punches the cap down into the juice two to three times a day to extract flavors and prevent bacterial activities. With twice the cap mass, this proved to be quite the workout. I ditched my regular metal paddle and went for a glass gallon jar for punchdown. A genius move if I may say so myself. Even then, the cap was so thick that the gallon jar could just sit on it. 

Glass gallon jar for punchdown

I also learned that doble pasta also meant more grapes to break down and more sugar to convert to alcohol. I had not accounted for that when I measured out the amount of yeast to use. As a consequence, my red was fermenting several days longer than normal. However, the reward was a rich wine with concentrated flavors. I am excited to see how the wine will further evolve with malolactic fermentation and oak maturation.

No Way, Rosé!

Not to waste the free-run juice, I used it to make my very first rosé. First I watered back the juice to reduce the Brix (or sugar content) to keep the wine at a lower alcohol level. Plus, I wanted to lighten the color but was barely successful as Syrah is a highly pigmented variety. As fermentation went on, the difference in colors for both wines was astounding. The rosé developed a deep pink hue, while the red was inky and dark.

Rosé Syrah
Red Syrah 

Rosé is made when you ferment red grapes using white winemaking method. It starts with separating the skins and pulp from the juice, which I did as part of doble pasta. I then used a white wine yeast strain known for producing crisp aromatic wine with intense fruit flavors. Like making a white wine, rosé is also fermented at a lower temperature (60°F) than that for a red wine (80°F).

As one might expect, more rookie mistakes were made in the making of the pink wine. Rosé is fermented in a carboy with an airlock to limit exposure to air. At the same time, adequate headspace is needed for the release of carbon dioxide from yeast activity. Getting the right amount of headspace, however, takes some trial and error, and in my case, a rosé eruption (see video below).

Because of the cooler temperature, rosé fermentation could go on for a while. Even with a zero Brix reading on the hydrometer, my rosé continued to bubble, an indication of ongoing yeast activity. I let it go for a few more days before the bubbling slowed down. After which, I racked the wine and topped it up, this time to truly minimize headspace. Sulfur dioxide was then added to inhibit further fermentation, and then the wine was chilled at 50°F to settle out any tartrate crystals (also known as wine diamonds). After a month in the fridge, the wine was finished and bottled. Viola!

What? A Pét-Nat?

While the rosé was bubbling with a zero Brix reading, I had a taste of the wine and really liked it. The thought of ditching the still rosé and bottling the lightly fizzy wine as a pét-nat crossed my mind. Pét-nat is after all a wine that has not completed fermentation, which is exactly what was going on.

That temptation was quickly killed by my fear of glass bottle explosion. That is always a risk when making a pressurized beverage. Being new and ill-equipped to accurately measure the dissolved carbon dioxide and its subsequent pressure in a glass bottle, it seemed prudent to keep the experiment limited. Besides, why choose one over the other when you can have both (or all three if you include the red)? 

Pét-nat securely stored in a bucket

So I decided to siphon out enough fizzy rosé to fill two previously used beer bottles. That would suffice as my little experiment. I then enclosed the bottles with crown corks, which is very hipster-y, and stored them in bucket with the lid on in case of a bottle explosion.

Que Syrah, Syrah, Syrah

It has been two and a half months since harvest. The pét-nat was the first to be bottled towards the end of September. The rosé followed suit after a month. The red is still in malolactic fermentation, a process often skipped when making white and pink wines. Since the proof of the wine is in the tasting, here are my notes of the three Syrahs as tasted this past Thanksgiving:

Pét-Nat: Foamed over after uncorking as pét-nats sometimes do. Deep pink and hazy. Highly aromatic with pressed sugarcane, cherry, apple cider, and a touch of brioche. Subtle fizz but not sustained. Medium body, dry, and very refreshing with a slight funk. Not bad for a first try!

Rosé: Deep pink in color but clear. Aromatic with rich cherry flavor and a tinge of sweetness. Medium body but refreshing with a lingering finish. Not quite the Bandol rosé, but a wonderful pairing with roast turkey and Thanksgiving sides.

Red (Barrel Tasting): Deep purple in color. Aromatic with cherry Jolly Rancher and white pepper. Full body. Medium plus acidity, a little astringent indicating that malolactic fermentation is not complete. Fine tannins and lingering finish.

My Verdict: Making three wines from a single grape has been a fun experiment and a much needed fresh breath of air. Now which wine shall I pick to drink to your good health this holiday season? Que Syrah, Syrah, Syrah. Whatever will be, will be, will be. 

Sunday, October 31, 2021

Quincy - The Gorge, the Grapes, and the Gem

It was a quick weekend getaway to hide from the Seattle rain. We packed our dogs and our vacation excitement, and headed for the rain shadow east of the Cascades. The two-and-a-half hours' drive ended in a little town called Quincy, with a population of just over 7,000 people. First, let me introduce you to the natural beauty of this area, and then we delve into the vine and the wine.

The Gorge

Quincy's claim to fame is the spectacular Gorge Amphitheater, an outdoor music venue that has hosted hundreds of concerts and music festivals, such as the Lilith Fair, Lollapalooza, and Sasquatch! The impressive line of musicians and bands that played there included Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Pearl Jam, and most notably, the Dave Matthews Band. There is even a documentary, Enormous: The Gorge Story, that chronicled the beginning of this geologic wonder.

We arrived in Quincy a week after the last concert of the season, intentionally to avoid the crowds during the pandemic. Hiking the Ancient Lakes Trail, I caught a glimpse of the Columbia River weaving through the basalt columns. The sheer beauty of the area was breathtaking. I can only imagine the concert experience with the natural acoustics and against the vast backdrop of the gorge.

Columbia River weaving through the gorge
The Grapes

We rented a condo on the beautiful grounds of Cave B Estate Winery surrounded by vineyards. Cave B owners, neurosurgeon Vince Bryan and his wife, Carol, were also the first to plant grapes in the area back in 1980. They named their winery Champs de Brionne, which translated to Fields of Bryans. Incidentally, the Bryans were also the original owners of the Gorge Amphitheater, which they used to host concerts during winery events.

Condos on Cave B surrounded by vineyards

Since then, Quincy and its surrounding areas have cultivated over 3,000 acres of vineyards, growing 20 different grape varieties. In 2012, the region received the Ancient Lakes AVA designation for being on higher elevation and more northerly than other Washington appellations. The huge swing in day-to-night temperatures and the basalt-limestone soils impart crisp acidity and high minerality, making it ideal for growing white wine grapes, of which Riesling is king. Some of the highly-scored Washington Rieslings, such as Chateau Ste Michelle's Eroica and Charles Smith's Kung Fu Girl, source their fruit from here.

Vineyard with a view

The Gem

We were enjoying a bagel sandwich and coffee at Sage Coffee House and Bistro (FYI, a great place for a quick lunch) when a sign caught my eye. It was nondescript: CHRIS DANIEL Tasting Room, Highway 283, OPEN FRI-SAT noon to 5pm. There was no telling what one would be tasting or where on the highway the tasting room was. It definitely had the feel of a local secret. I started googling Chris Daniel and, to my delight, uncovered a gem. 

Nondescript sign for Chris Daniel Tasting Room

The winery is named after the young winemaker, whose resume reads like my wine travels. Chris has had stints at Lapostolle and Viu Manent in Colchagua Valley, Domaine Lejeune in Pommard, and Bell and Girard in Napa. His father, Michael, has over 20 years of consulting experience for vineyards. Together, they combine high quality grapes with skilled winemaking to produce gorgeous well-structured wines at an incredible value! (Their whites and rosé run around $20 a bottle, and their reds are around $30-35 a bottle.) Here's the catch: It is hard to find their wines outside of Quincy and Wenatchee. 

Proud parents, Dianne and Michael Stewart

Note: Chris Daniel Tasting Room is closed from November to mid April. Please check the winery website for the latest Tasting Room information.

My Verdict: Quincy definitely offered more than I had expected from this little getaway - the geological splendor, the serene quiet vineyards, and the accidental discovery of a new winery. Whether you are planning to head out that way for the next Dave Matthews Band concert or just hoping to stay out of the rain, be sure to swing by Chris Daniel. You won't be sorry!

Thursday, September 30, 2021

Phylloxera, the Other Infection

It was a month before harvest. We were told that our grape order with a Walla Walla vineyard could not be fulfilled due to a light crop this year. Thinking that the unseasonably warm weather might be the cause, we switched our order and went with a Yakima vineyard instead. Then through the grapevine (no pun intended), I learned about the real culprit - phylloxera!

Cartoon from Punch, September 6, 1890

Phylloxera Plague

You may have heard of the phylloxera epidemic in Europe back in the 19th century. The vineyards there were severely decimated, bringing the wine industry to its knee. It started when American vines were brought across the Atlantic Ocean to be studied. Unfortunately, little pesky stowaways went along with them and somehow snuck into the vineyards.

Phylloxerae are microscopic insects that feed on the leaves and roots of the grapevines. In the roots, they can cause critical damage and introduce a secondary bacterial or fungal infection, eventually starving the vines of nutrients and water. It was estimated that over 40% of the French vineyards were devastated over 15 years during the plague.

Champagne vineyards once devastated by phylloxera
Early attempts to contain the plague ranged from chemicals to pesticides. Some vineyards even introduced predators like toads and chicken to control the phylloxera population. These attempts were in vain. The only viable solution was to graft European vines onto phylloxera-resistant American rootstocks. These rootstocks have developed a natural defense against the insect. When bitten, the American root exudes a sap to clog the louse's mouth and then forms a layer of tissue to protect itself from any secondary infection. 

The grafting approach was wildly successful in saving the European grapevines, also known as Vitis vinifera. You can thank the American rootstock as you sip your glass of Bordeaux or Barolo.

Dodging the Phylloxera Bullet?

Many vineyards growing Vitis vinifera grapes have preemptively avoided the threat of phylloxera by planting only vines that are grafted on resistant rootstocks. But there are areas in Europe and beyond that have remained unscathed by the louse. Apparently, phylloxera does not survive well in the slate soil of Mosel or the volcanic soil of Mount Etna. Grapevines in those areas are still grown in their native rootstocks.

Phylloxera also tends not to thrive in cooler climate. Until recently, Washington had been virtually phylloxera-free and was able to grow Vitis vinifera in their native rootstocks as well. However, with climate change, phylloxera has started making inroads into a few Walla Walla vineyards leading to an outbreak in 2019. 

Phylloxera does not tolerate cold winter
Reluctant to give up the native rootstocks, many Walla Walla vineyards hope to contain the spread of phylloxera through better sanitation practices and extensive quarantine protocol. Several vineyards have required boots to be disinfected and also placed a limit on visitor traffic. If nothing else, this may slow the spread and buy the vineyards time to plan for the eventual transition to American rootstocks.

While there is always the debate about the quality of wine being affected by grafted vines, the truth is that it hasn't hurt sales in Napa or Bourgogne. However, ripping off infected vines and replanting with new ones is very costly. Additionally, it often takes about three years before a new vine can produce viable grapes. 

One wonders how that all may play into the psyche of Walla Walla wineries as they deal with phylloxera. Are they going to be doers or deniers?

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Pandemic Winemaking

I have enjoyed winemaking as a hobby. I love dreaming about the new vintage in the spring while sourcing the grapes, waiting in anticipation for harvest in the fall, and immersing myself in the process of fermentation all winter. More than that, I adore the camaraderie among fellow winemakers as we process freshly harvested grapes, press the grapes, rack the wine, and finalize it for bottling. It is hard work with grapey messiness, but it is always rewarded with wonderful food and wine, friendship and laughter.

Pre-pandemic celebration of a vintage

Then came the pandemic. While the wine yeast and malolactic bacteria remained unaffected, the whole social aspect of winemaking was very much altered. 

Pandemic Harvest

When harvest rolled around last year, the vaccines were not yet available. We had nothing but masks and sanitizers, relying on good sense and reasonably decent weather to keep us outdoor and socially distanced.

Freshly harvested grapes
Like prior years, the winemakers arrived at the crush site waiting for the grapes. Only this time, our excitement was contained behind the masks. There was a sense of uncertainty as we navigated working together while keeping six feet apart. 

Once we were assigned our duties, it was like clockwork. Some of us set up and sanitized the crusher/de-stemmer. Others raked the grapes into crates, weighing and distributing the allotments. We then crushed and de-stemmed the grapes. When all the grapes were processed, we cleaned up and stored the equipment. 

Masked winemakers raking grapes into crates
Weighing 50 lbs of grapes per crate
A ton of grapes

There was a subdued sense of elation when we were done. Yet in our usual post-crush sticky grapey messiness, there were no high fives nor pats in the back. We merely exchanged nods with smile in our eyes as we claimed our respective portions of the crushed grapes to bring home.

Pandemic Fermentation

While we typically complete alcoholic fermentation separately, we would get together to press the grapes and have a potluck. Last fall, sharing food was not an option. Instead I made a hearty batch of chili for post-press nourishment. We sat six feet apart in a heated garage with the door lifted, chowing down hot chili with corn bread and washing them down with wine.

Pre-pandemic racking and tasting

After press comes periodic racking. In pre-pandemic days, we would rack our wine together because we share a single barrel.  Each time we met was another opportunity for a potluck and sharing bottles of wine. Last year, however, we chose against group racking. Instead, everyone left their carboys of wine in my garage. Throughout fall and winter, I racked and tasted the group's wine, reporting out tasting notes. (Our dog Jipp was my co-winemaker.)

My pandemic co-winemaker
By bottling time, it was summer, and the weather had warmed up considerably. We were all fully vaccinated and happy to ditch the masks while maintaining social distance. With the garage door wide open, we formed an assembly line, prepping bottles, siphoning wine, corking, and cleaning up. We celebrated the 2020 vintage, sipping hot coffee and feasting on the spread of sweet and savory breakfast pastries, fresh fruit, and delectable limoncello curd yogurt.

Another Pandemic Vintage?

It would have been great if the pandemic ended with that vintage. In July, it was looking optimistic with an all-time low COVID-19 hospitalization, coupled with a high vaccination rate. Then the delta variant struck. By August, COVID-19 hospitalization had gone up by almost ten times! Non-urgent procedures are being cancelled and visitor policy has become more restrictive as the hospitals hunker down for yet another surge. 

Stepping into the my garage cellar, I can't help but wonder - Is 2021 going to be another pandemic vintage?

What we do have now that we didn't have then are vaccines, more effective treatments, and substantially more knowledge and experience in dealing with the virus. Yet, if there is anything I have learned, it is anything can change and change fast. So I am going to keep one eye on the vineyards and the other eye on the hospitals and hope for the best.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Pét-Nat, Pet What? The Hipster Sparkler

You know Champagne and Prosecco, the two styles of sparkling wines. Their key distinction lies in the method of second fermentation, where the liqueur de tirage (mixture of yeast, sugar, and wine) is introduced to the still wine base to produce bubbles. Second fermentation takes place in the bottles for Champagne (known as the traditional method) and in the tank for Prosecco (known as the Charmat method). While wine connoisseurs argue which method is better, there is yet another sparkling wine that does not even go through a second fermentation.

Hipster Wine by Robson Hatsukami Morgan
on Unsplash

Hello, Pét-Nat, the hipster sparkler! 

Short for pétillant-naturel (French for "naturally sparkling"), pét-nat wines have gained in popularity in recent years with the increased demand for more natural and less manipulated wines. Fad aside, the pét-nat method (known as the ancestral method) was probably how the first sparkling wines were made. This production method dates back to the 1500's. 

It is not hard to imagine how pét-nats might come about by accident. Back in the days without modern equipment and knowledge to measure and monitor the decrease in sugar content during alcoholic fermentation, wine was sometimes bottled before the process was complete. The yeast then resumed converting sugar to alcohol while releasing carbon dioxide as a byproduct in the bottle. So when the bottle was popped, there was a slight effervescence in the wine from the carbonation.

Here are three things to know about pét-nat, and why your hipster friends may love them.

Low Alcohol

Pét-nat wines are made with a single alcoholic fermentation process that starts outside and continues inside the bottle. Champagne and Prosecco, on the other hand, start with still wine as a base that is layered on with the alcohol from the second fermentation.

As a result, most pét-nat wines run in the range of 10-12% ABV, relatively lower compared to the 12-12.5% ABV found in a Champagne or a Prosecco.

A Tad Fizzy

Pét-nat wines rely solely on whatever is left of the primary fermentation in the bottle for carbonation. Without the liqueur de tirage to fuel more yeasty activity, pét-nats will not achieve the level of effervescence that a Champagne or a Prosecco produces. However, if you enjoy wine with just a little fizz, pét-nats will deliver on that.

A Tad Fizzy by Giovanna Gomes on Unsplash

For the physicists among us who can relate to bars as the units of measure for pressure, pét-nats generally come up to about 2.5-3 bars. That is somewhere between semi-sparkling and a less sparkling wine. In comparison, Champagnes and Proseccos range between 5.5-6 bars.

Hipster Rustic

While Champagne and Prosecco winemaking can be highly involved to achieve a certain finesse and/or a consistent house style, the making of pét-nats requires a light hand. Some pét-nat makers may be more precise than others at achieving the right level of sugar content prior to bottling, even if it is just to prevent bottle explosion in the cellar. But generally, pét-nats are described as unpredictable and less tamed. 

Crown corks by Adam Wilson on Unsplash

Then there is the question of disgorgement that is practiced by Champagne makers. Disgorgement is the process of removing the lees (dead yeasts and sediments) after bottle fermentation. Some pét-nat makers may disgorge, and others may choose not to. Pét-nats that do not go through disgorgement tend to be cloudy and funky to the nose and the palate. 

But nothing screams hipster rustic more than an unpredictable, cloudy, funky wine that is bottled and enclosed with a crown cork. 

I had the pleasure of tasting two pét-nats from Grosgrain, a Walla Walla winery. Here's what I think:

Grosgrain Pét-Nats

2020 Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Sémillon, Les Collines Vineyard, Walla Walla AVA, 11.1% alcohol

The wine is deep gold, lightly bubbly, and a little cloudy. It is definitely funky and yeasty to the nose. On the palate, it is surprisingly light, crisp, and citrus-y with a higher acidity than a still Sémillon. I would say it is somewhere between a cider and a wine. It is definitely interesting.

2020 Pétillant Naturel Sparkling Old Vine Lemberger, Kiona Vineyard, Red Mountain AVA, 12.4% alcohol

The wine is medium copper, a little frothier, and a little cloudier. The nose is pleasantly floral and fruit-forward without any yeasty funk. It continues to delight on the palate with bright fruit and high acidity. There is still the hint of a cider characteristic. It is my favorite between the two.

My Verdict: I definitely enjoyed trying the pét-nats. It will probably not replace Champagne as a celebratory special-occasion wine, but I can see pét-nats in the rotation at a summer barbecue. What do you think?

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Sulfites Problems and The Magic Wand

Recently I had a few problems with sulfites in my wine. It is not what you think. In fact, it is probably the opposite of what you think. I forgot to add sulfites to my wine. I'll get into that in a minute. But first let's talk about more commonly known problems with sulfites - real and perceived.

Real Problem

Sulfites are naturally occurring compounds found in wine and other food sources such as peanuts, eggs, and tea. Because sulfites are also antioxidants, they are often added as preservatives to slow down browning or discoloration of food. 

In the 1970s as salad bars gained popularity in the United States, there was a dramatic uptick in the use of sulfites to keep the fruits and vegetables "fresh." With that came a rise in the cases of severe sulfite reactions. Sulfite sensitivity manifests in asthmatic symptoms such as wheezing and in rare cases anaphylactic reactions. Some people develop hives, swelling, or stomach pain. 

In 1986, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the use of sulfites in salad bars as a response to the increase in cases of sulfite allergy and sensitivity. It is estimated that about 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites, and those with asthma are more susceptible.

Perceived Problem

Contrary to popular belief, headache is not a typical reaction to sulfites. But because many people suffer headaches from wine consumption, sulfites have become the easy target. In reality, wine-induced headaches are more likely due to dehydration from alcohol consumption or from the histamines and other compounds in wine. 

Wine wands

That said, the market wastes no time in capitalizing on the perceived problem of sulfites by offering a multitude of solutions, from sulfite-free wines to sulfite-removing wands, filters, and drops. While these may be effective in removing sulfites, one wonders if they eliminate wine-induced headaches or hangover since there is no scientific evidence that sulfites are the cause. There is however no accounting for the placebo effect.

Too Little Sulfites

The addition of sulfites during winemaking is necessary for the production of high-quality wine. Winemakers often pitch potassium metabisulfites into the wine post-fermentation to protect it from spoilage. When sulfites come into contact with the water in the wine, sulfur dioxide (SO2) is released. A portion of the SO2 will immediately bind with certain chemicals in the wine while the remainder will be in a free state (FSO2) to take on harmful microorganisms and to slow down premature aging of the wine.

Wine by Vladimir Fedotov on Unsplash

My first problem for my 2020 vintage is that I forgot my post-fermentation sulfites. While the science behind how much and when to add sulfites is complex and entails conducting multiple tests, a good rule of thumb for hobby winemakers is to pitch a certain amount every month to ensure adequate protection of the wine. And I did none of that this past vintage.

It was not till I ran a pre-bottling panel on my wine four months after fermentation that I found out that there were only 2 parts per million (ppm) of FSO2 in my wine. That is winemaker's talk for virtually zero protection for my wine from spoilage. 

Using the pandemic analogy, it is like going to a store without the protection of a mask or vaccination and hoping not to catch COVID. Thankfully, the wine was still tasting fine.

Too Much Sulfites

In my moment of panic, I googled the first website that gave me the target FSO2 level based on my wine pH. I did a quick calculation and pitched the sulfites as quickly as I could. Then I found a couple more websites that suggested target FSO2 levels that were significantly lower than the first website. One of the later websites had a target FSO2 level that was half of what I had pitched.

Great! Now a giant sulfite-removing magic wand doesn't sound so bad.

The truth is that it is hard to determine the right level of FSO2. Each wine's chemical makeup presents numerous variables that may bind with the sulfites, making it hard to determine how much FSO2 is left without running yet another test. Too much sulfites will inhibit the wine's ability to develop in complexity and give the wine a chemically metallic taste. Too little sulfites will increase the chance of spoilage. The winemaker treads lightly between the two.

Using the pandemic analogy again, it is like wearing five masks to the store which may protect you from COVID, but you may not be able to breathe.

Wine racking

Since I don't have a giant magic sulfite-removing wand, I decided my best recourse is to rack the wine despite mixed reviews with this approach. Put simply, wine racking is siphoning wine from one vessel to another, a process that introduces oxygen that will hopefully bind with excess sulfites. 

My Verdict: This is my fifth vintage. With every vintage, you learn something new that will help you improve your winemaking skills for the next vintage. There is no magic wand in that. I will let you know in 6 to 12 months how the vintage tastes.