• What are Sulphites, and why are they in my wine?

    What are Sulphites?

    Basically, a collective term used to describe chemicals containing Sulphur, a naturally occurring element found on Earth. It has been used as a preservative in food and drink since ancient times. It has been mention in texts to do with wine making as far back as the Greek, Egyptian and Roman empires and Biblical times ('Brimstone'). It is an important disinfectant, stabilising and anti oxidant agent. In fact, they are created as a bi product of yeast themselves in fermentation- making them impossible to avoid completely.

    Sulphur is a very reactive naturally occurring element found in nature

    Sulphur is a very reactive naturally occurring element found in nature

    Are Sulphites harmful?

    No, unless in very high quantities and released in the gas form- Sulphur Dioxide. This can cause an unpleasant 'eggy' smell and irritate the throat slightly in some people. However, it can cause serious issues for asthmatics. This is why any foodstuffs (including wine) have to be labelled if containing over a certain amount. However, the levels in wine are far below most other foods such as dried fruits and tinned items. Regular (not 'organic' or 'natural/Sulphur free') wines contain levels much lower than dried fruit. In fact, it is in a wine maker's best interest to keep them as low as possible- high levels can begin to cause offensive odours and/or muffle the appealing flavours in wines. Much more used to be added, to offset sloppy wine making. Something that in the modern age of stainless steel, good hygiene and temperature control thankfully does not happen anymore, whatever the price point. It's simply not acceptable, you'd quickly go out of business as consumers have plenty of choice of well made examples now from all over the world.

    Do sulphites in red wine give me headaches?

    Believe it or not, there are typically greater amounts of sulphites found in white wines, than there are red. So it's definitely not the Sulphites you're 'allergic' to giving you headaches! It is more likely to do with the alcohol levels, which red wines typically have higher percentage abv of. People have different natural levels of the enzymes required to process alcohol in their bodies. Those with less find it harder to work off the alcohol they have consumed, and therefore the toxins are left in the body longer. This causes the flushes, faster pulse rates and headaches.

    Sulphites are added to wine (in very small, controlled doses). It is often as Sodium Metabisulphate, a harmless, odourless, tasteless salt dissolved during winemaking. It prevents  the wine both oxidising and spoiling due to bacteria and fungi

    Sulphites are added to wine (in very small, controlled doses). It is often as Sodium Metabisulphate, a harmless, odourless, tasteless salt dissolved during winemaking. It prevents the wine both oxidising and spoiling due to bacteria and fungi

    What are natural/low Sulphite wines?

    Basically wines where the wine maker deliberately uses as fewer additives and 'unnatural' fermentation techniques as possible. This includes not adding Sulphite preservatives, so levels are less than 'regular' wine. However, this presents a whole host of problems and challenges. The maker has to be very careful to follow strict hygiene practices, and be very quick. Often the wine will have to be pasteurised, like milk, to stop the wine going off in bottle. As mentioned before, small amounts of sulhpites are unavoidable in wine. Quite often these natural wines are prone to farmyardy smells and less fruity natures even with careful handling. They also tend to not last as long, and need to be drunk as soon as possible. Gérard Bertrand, a prominent wine maker from the Languedoc in the south of France is a big believer in natural wines. If you want to give them a try, his wines can be found at all price points in most supermarkets. The warm, drier climate of the Languedoc makes producing natural, organic and biodynamic wines much easier as their are less pests! 

  • How to Taste Wine Like a ‘Professional’

    Everyone knows how to drink wine. But what’s the difference between just drinking it, and actually TASTING wine?

    Drinking is a passive activity, we are aware of the ritual of doing it and enjoying (or perhaps sometimes not!) the experience but not really putting much thought into what is going on. Whereas, tasting is all about slowing down, and considering what is going on in your glass. Trying to take note of all the different aromas and flavours you are experiencing, separating them out.

    No one is born an expert taster, it’s all just practice. So the more wine you drink, the better! When I first started out learning about wine- I would listen to those more experienced than myself reeling off a list of seemingly random flavours, being asked what I thought and just saying ‘…..tastes like white/red wine??’ Once you’ve smelled and tasted a few different wines though, especially when they are the same grape varieties but from different countries, you soon begin to realise that they really all don’t taste exactly the same.

    Wine tasting is all about slowing down, and really taking notice of what's going on in the glass. Anyone can do it!

    Wine tasting is all about slowing down, and really taking notice of what's going on in the glass. Anyone can do it!

    After a while you begin to learn to narrow things into: red and black fruits, citrus fruits, cooked/dried fruits etc. and begin noticing other physical traits and differences in the wines- like the acidity and how tannic a wine is, whether there is any sugar there and that the aftertaste of some wines lasts much longer than others. This begins to form a logical check list you can follow, and helps you group and make sense of a very subjective experience.

    Aromas/Flavours of wine are normally grouped like this in the trade. Some of these might sound a bit strange. It is not that they put these flavours directly in wine (although now there are products called ‘aromatised’ wines where they have). Wine making is a very scientific discipline, and they have done a lot of chemical analysis on it and found that it shares similar aroma compounds to many fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. These activate the same parts of the brains the memory of these items are stored, so they appear to smell the same. The aromas we are most used to will therefore be the first that are picked out. This is why it is so subjective, because unless you have had personal experience of smelling or tasting something, it isn’t going to be picked up in the wine!

    Primary characters

    Those aromas/flavours that derive from the fruit naturally as a product of the specific variety, or the local climate that the grapes are grown in. These are usually fruits or floral based. Usually more ‘fresh picked’ and ‘herbaceous green’ scents from cooler climates, to more exotic/’cooked’ fruit aromas like stone fruit and cassis in warmer countries.

    Wine is a bit like a fruit basket. Full of different flavours!

    Wine is a bit like a fruit basket. Full of different flavours!

    Secondary Characteristics

    Aromas/flavours that occur due to decisions the wine maker has taken in how to treat the wine whilst producing it. For example: How long to leave the skins in contact with the juice, fermenting or finishing the wine in oak barrels to mature, leaving/stirring the sediment (lees) during fermentation to add extra texture and flavour. All these can contribute to extra flavour (for example ‘oaky’ sweet spice flavours from time in new barrels), or be avoided to prevent them overwhelming the natural flavours of the fruit (eg a fresh, fruity Sauvignon Blanc).

    Time in oak barrels can give wine flavour directly from the wood, or indirectly through time and controlled exposure to air.

    Time in oak barrels can give wine flavour directly from the wood, or indirectly through time and controlled exposure to air.

    Tertiary characters

    The flavours that develop over time. Some wines will never have these, as they are intended for consuming as young as possible. Others benefit from a bit of cellaring. Wine is a very complex product, with lots of different chemical aroma and flavour compounds. These can very slowly react with one another over time, and as a result different flavours appear.

    Usually this manifests in the form of the fruit aromas going from ‘fresh picked,’ to more cooked/dried and eventually being replaced with more ‘savoury’ smells like leather, tobacco, chocolate and spice. People who like these flavours realise that they have to usually be patient for these to appear- and if someone else has done the ageing process for them, that time is money and they are prepared to pay for it to get those flavours.

    Some flavours only develop with time. Like those in vintage Champagne

    Some flavours only develop with time. Like those in vintage Champagne



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  • Wine Glossary-C

    Carbonic Maceration

    A method of making fruity red wines low in tannins. The Beaujolais region of France is the most famous user of this technique. The grapes are first fermented in a vessel containg carbon dioxide. This is followed by normal fermentation of the grape juice.

    Chateau

    ​When referring to French wine this term does not always mean there is a large manor house involved,. There may be one but it really means that the wine has been made using grapes from the maker's own vineyards.

    Complexity

    The different layers of aromas and flavours of a wine. A complex wine will have many of these producing a longer finish in the mouth.

    Corked

    Not broken bits of cork in the wine as many believe. This is a wine fault caused by cork taint. A chemical called TCA is produced by a fungus present in the cork when certain conditions are met. Unfortunately you only know this has happened when you open your wine. You will then be met by an unpleasant dank and mouldy smell. It's unmistakeable.

    Crisp

    Crisp is a term usually used to describe white wine. Crisp wine is acidic with brisk fresh flavours.

    Cru

    This French term means "growth". It usually refers to good quality wines It may involve a single village or vineyard producing the wine.

  • Understanding French Wine Labels-Bordeaux

    French wine labels can be intimidating

    So let's cut through the jargon and see what Bordeaux wine labels tell us.

    Map of France showing Bordeaux City

    Map of France showing Bordeaux City

    The Bordeaux wine region is in south west France

    The the sea , estuary & river affect the vines

    The the sea , estuary & river affect the vines

    The wine making of this region is profoundly affected by the nearness of the sea and the presence of the estuary and river. You can see that the region is divided into two by the river.

    The left and right banks. The

    The left and right banks. The "two halves" of Bordeaux

    Left bank conditions favour Cabernet Sauvignon

    Red Bordeaux wine is a blend of several grape varieties. The two major ones are Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot. Cabernet Sauvignon prefers the gravel soils on the left bank so more of that variety of it is used in their blends than Merlot.

    Right bank conditions favour Merlot-so more is used

    It's the opposite situation on the right bank. Merlot prefers the cool clay soils there so the blend has more of it than Cabernet Sauvignon.

    Let's look at some labels:

    Grand Cru Classé

    Grand Cru Classé

    Grand Cru Classé

    Grand Cru Classé is the top classification established in the 1800's. It was awarded to châteaux that were around at this time-all wine makers on the left bank. Château just means wine maker-there is not necessarily a big house involved. Little has changed since that time as there is no relegation or promotion.

    Some time later growers on the right bank established their own Grand Cru. This works differently as the wine is judged so that a wine-maker here can be awarded the classification or it can be withdrawn.

    Grand Cru Classé is the most prestigious wine of the region with prices to match. These wines are usually aged in oak barrels and in bottle for years. Complex flavours develop. They are not good to drink young because of the high acidity and tannins they have. These soften with age and the wine become very desirable and expensive.

    Cru Bourgeois

    Cru Bourgeois. Classification below Grand Cru Classé for left bank wines

    Cru Bourgeois. Classification below Grand Cru Classé for left bank wines

    The Cru Bourgeois classification was made for left bank châteaux that were left out of the Grand Cru Classé group or weren't around at that time. These wine makers want to make very good quality wine too. This classification has to be earned by the wines though and they are judged each year. The classification is awarded (or not) annually.

    Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur

    Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur

    Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur

    That leaves the basic wines of Bordeaux. These are less expensive wines made anywhere in Bordeaux. They are usually not aged and are best drunk young.

    What's the difference between Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur?

    Comparing alcohol content

    Comparing alcohol content

    Did you spot the difference in alcohol level?

    Bordeaux Supérieur is made slightly differently, resulting in a higher alcohol level than Bordeaux.

    What about the term Grand Vin?

    Grand Vin

    Grand Vin "Our main wine"

    Grand vin is not an official term. It just means that it is the château's main wine. The Château is the winemaker and here is showing that the wine has been made and bottled by them.

    A Cru Bourgeois with Grand Vin on its label

    A Cru Bourgeois with Grand Vin on its label

    Here we see a more prestigious Cru Bourgeois with Grand Vin on its label

    Simple summary of Bordeaux wine label hierarchy

    Hierarchy of Bordeaux Wine labels

    Hierarchy of Bordeaux Wine labels

    • Grand Cru Classé at the top. Desirable, a long time before drinkable & expensive.
    • Cru Bourgeois is also prestigious. A level lower than Grand Cru Classé.
    • Bordeaux & Bordeaux Supérieur make up the bulk of the production. They are drunk young and are the least expensive.
  • Decanting Wine

    Decanting Wine. Why & When Should You Do It?

    This is an issue that confuses a lot of people. When does wine need decanting?

    Can I spoil wine by decanting?

    Do I decant a young wine?

    Is it only for reds or does white wine benefit?

    Hopefully this infographic should a​nswer all your questions. There is no doubt as well that a nice glass decanter looks lovely on a dinner table. It really sets the scene for a memorable meal.


    Source: Fix.com
  • Wine Glossary-B

    Balance

    A wine maker has achieved a balanced wine when all elements are in harmony. Fruit, acidity, tannins and alcohol level-none should dominate.

    Biodynamic

    ​Biodynamic wine growers use organic methods but also mystical ones. They are inspired by Rudolph Steiner, an Austrian philosopher who combined science and spirituality in his teachings. Nettles, ground quartz and cow horns may be buried in the ground with the vines. Biodynamic point to improved plant health and wine quality. Others argue that these results would be gained by organic methods alone.

    Blend

    Blended wines may be combinations of the same variety from several vineyards. They may also be made using several grape varieties. The different varieties will contribute to the balance of the finished wine. Bordeaux red wine is made up of three grape varieties. Cabernet Franc contributes aroma and colour, Merlot gives roundness and Cabernet Sauvignon body and tannins.

    Body

    This is the weight, texture and fullness of the wine. Full bodied wines are big and powerful and "coat the mouth". Lighter bodied wines are more delicate. The higher the level of alcohol, glycerin and tannins the fuller the body of the wine.

    Bouquet

    This is the smell of all the aromas formed in the wine after fermentation. These form in barrel or bottle. A good aged wine will develop a complex bouquet due to oxidation of fruit acids over a long period of time.