The Wine Whisperer – “Pinot Noir Does Not Fight Back”

“Does anyone not drink wine” I asked in my opening address to a table of ten ladies that I was about to entertain for lunch and talk on the merits of pairing wine with Asian cuisine.

As incongruous as it sounds, it was a fair question given the group comprised the spouses of finance industry CEO’s who had travelled from all over the world for a conference in Singapore – indeed as diverse representation of palates from across the globe as it gets.

“I can’t drink wine at all!” a woman declares distraughtly, going on to confess, “It gives me headaches and I become instantly nauseous and have difficulty breathing… I start sneezing and just feel awful when I drink wine… I am pretty sure it is sulphur – I’m allergic to sulphur!”

‘Just great’, I thought to myself, here we are about to delve into the intricacies and complexities of wine and spices and half my audience are hyper-allergic and teetotal.

Establishing that the rest of the group actually enjoys a glass of wine, I was determined our sulphur-suffering friend would be included in our colloquium and not left out of the discussion, or have dry-argument, as it were. So I asked her would she be willing to try a wine – a biodynamic wine – that I believe she would have no adverse reaction to.

There was an audible moment of silence as this woman’s body language clearly indicated she was steeping way out of her comfort zone, at the same time grappling with the compelling discomfort of not participating in the group therapy.

“Ah… well maybe… ok… I guess so,” came her anxious reply, as I reassured her all will be fine, “Besides we have our minder here, your accompanying bodyguard, to which I am sure he is fully versed with medical emergency procedures and will have you in an ambulance and whisked off to the ER in no time!”

The ensuing laughter helped to diffuse the tense moment, but the palpable silence returned as I poured her a glass of white wine, specifically a 2007 Gruner Veltliner from Jurtschitsch ‘Loiserberg’ Gruner Veltliner from Kamptal, Austria.

As she proceeded to sip from her glass of wine, pausing for the expected adverse reaction, a look of astonishment came over her face as a flood of sensations engulfed her mind. I’m not sure if it was the captivating hedonistic tropical aromas and flavours of the gruner veltliner brimming in grapefruit freshness or the elation that she had no unpleasant reactions, but a beaming grin and glaze of stupefaction now adorned her face.

Our group looked on in amazement as she began to guzzle and, continued to do so with fervour throughout the lunch, seemingly in ecstasy – she was a reborn – wine drinker.

Needless to say, the tempo of the conversation was heightened and my group were now interrogating me on the subject of biodynamics and sulphur levels; not exactly the light discussion I had intended and exacerbated by the awkward, if not predictable question fired at me by an eager audience, “Are biodynamic wines better for you… are they higher in quality?”

In an attempt to rationalize all this with my now evangelized group, I went on to explain there is no scientific evidence that biodynamic or organically grown wines are better for you or superior in quality. Yet, there is a tangible appreciation and anecdotal corroboration amongst informed wine drinkers that vineyards practicing organic or biodynamic methods have a measurable distinction of vibrancy and energy of flavour and, generally more reflective of their terroir or ‘sense of place’.

It is also fair to assume that such ecologically-minded vineyard owners, who painstakingly grow grapes as naturally as possible, often without irrigation and at inordinately low yields, would apply the same diligence and quality measures in the winemaking process.

And the difference between biodynamic and organic; biodynamic viticulture essentially takes organics to another level, comprising a metaphysical and Synodic (Lunar rhythms in conjunction with the stars) approach to achieve an ecological and sustainable farming system with the same principals as organic growers – not to use any harmful synthetic chemicals such as artificial fertilizers and pesticides, promoting a natural underground culture – but applied to the entire property with the ultimate goal of instilling and protecting a naturally self-sustaining and highly diverse ecosystem.

Yes, I know, all a bit deep, but it was necessary to satiate the group’s now avaricious thirst for knowledge.

But what of the thorny issue and demonizing of sulphur dioxide; is the public’s misinterpretation or negative connotations of labelling terms “Preservative 220 Added” or “Contains Sulphites” unjust?

“I certainly believe so”, I declared and went on to explain.

The primary reason it (the anti-oxidant sulphur dioxide or SO2) is on a label is to inform asthmatics who can be sensitive to this additive. However, at the core of the problem are the incongruous criteria between organically made and organically and biodynamically grown wines, the former dictating that no added sulphites be used in the winemaking process in many countries.

This prompted the assumption and statement from my reborn wine drinker, “So, should I only buy organic wines, that are Certified and labelled organic, as they will have no sulphur?”

Alas, as I opened a Pandora’s Box of chemistry and wine and food science, I proceeded to explain that sulphur is a non-metallic essential element of all living cells that exist throughout nature and inherently non-toxic to humans or the environment. Sulphites are present naturally and supplemented in many common foods such cheese, yogurt and other processed dairy products, bread and baked goods, dried fruits, dried spices, tofu and soy products, dried pasta and jams to mention a few.

Furthermore, virtually all winemakers consider the use of sulphur an imperative in order to prevent oxidation or bacterial spoilage either in the winemaking process and added to the finished wine when bottling. Conversely, you can be assured that a wine that is oxidised or spoiled will give you a headache.

However, it is pertinent to appreciate how infinitesimal the level of sulphur that is generally used by artisan winemakers. Sulphur is measured in parts per million (ppm) with the maximum permitted for example, by Australian-New Zealand Food Standard Codes, 250ppm for dry wines and 300ppm for dessert wines. By comparison, dried fruits can contain up to 3000ppm.

Under organic and biodynamic certification in New Zealand the total sulphur level is usually below 120ppm. White and sparkling wines sometimes tend to have higher levels of sulphur than red, being more prone to oxidisation in the winemaking process.

Then someone fired off the question, “Are American wines or French wines higher or lower in sulphur.”

With the equivalent of the United Nations of consumer at our table and wanting to avoid a polemical discussion of nationalistic amplitude, I deflected the question by answering that I had in fact conducted a sulphur poll of reputable New Zealand wineries, some of which are officially certified as organic or biodynamic, and others that had adopted such practices. Not one of them exceeded 120ppm total sulphur with a range between 30 and 100ppm.

Adding, it is interesting to note that producers who bottle under screwcap add less sulphur at bottling than those who use cork, but more importantly consumers should also appreciate that the levels at bottling will decrease over time as the free sulphur dissolves in the wine with bottle age.

The fact is such low levels of sulphur are undetectable to all but the most highly trained technical palates and should not be an issue to consumers. And whilst there are “No Sulphur Added” or “No Added Preservative” wines being made, it is important to understand that there are no wines that are entirely sulphur-free, even those US wines labelled “Organic Wine”, as sulphur dioxide is natural by-product of fermentation and there will always be a miniscule amount present.

All that said, with my now demigod status amongst our group and to complete the sermon and healing of our super-sensitive sulphur-sufferer, I exhorted avoiding all commercial wines, generally the culprits of excessive sulphur, armoured against the perils of inadequate shipping, storage and supermarket shelves.

And I could not resist further condemnation, that such commercial wines were likely to contain unwanted artificial chemicals and harmful pesticides and that perhaps these elements were the culprits and cause of her adverse reaction.

Ambiguities aside, I am a firm believer that anyone who experiences adverse reactions to wine in the terms of allergies and hyper-sensitivities, should endeavour to experiment with producers that practice organic or biodynamic viticulture; at the minimum, least you discover what terroir really means, and a headache is a small price to pay for such enlightenment.

You would think after all this I would not be stupid enough to ask if anyone has issues with red wine.

Predictably, another of our group protested, “She simply cannot drink red wine as it gives her a massive headache, almost immediately!”

So, here we go – again – and I asked if she would be willing to try a wine that I believe would give her no adverse reaction, from a vineyard championing organic viticulture and iconic pinot noir producer, specifically, Ata Rangi ‘Crimson’ Pinot Noir 2009 from Martinborough, New Zealand.

She replied with a mildly positive “ok”, one assumes given my success with our newfound gruner veltliner fan and my wine ‘bedside manner’, she felt in good hands.

I also asked her if she drank much pinot noir, rephrasing that to was she aware of what grape or region she was drinking when these the headaches occurred.

She replied, “I can’t recall drinking pinot noir… you see my husband normally chooses the wine and he likes cabernet sauvignon… yes we normally drink cabernet – we live in the Napa Valley”.

“You live in the Napa Valley!” I bellowed, “There is your problem.” Whoops, back pedal. “No disrespect but drinking highly-tannic red wine is going to deal to your head… you need to be drinking pinot noir which has a much softer tannin profile – as we say in the wine trade – ‘Pinot noir does not fight back’.”

She looked aghast, a look that said, here is my husband making me drink wine that is giving me a headache. I suddenly had this vision of some irate CEO and his attorney taking me to task on this.

But then, a look of hope, as she proceeded to take the first sip of the Ata Rangi Crimson Pinot Noir, as we all stood by – again – with the anxious moments of waiting for the reaction – if any.

No reaction. She took a second sip and said, “Ooh, it smells nice and it’s wonderfully sweet and light…” as the ladies heaved a sigh of relief in unison and looked on in amazement – again – as she too continued to consume it (pinot) in great quantity and pleasure!

By this stage the ladies were having quite a time of it and heralding my wine healing skills with one of them announcing, “You know what, we are going to have to call you the Wine Whisperer!”

I have to say it felt good, helping people overcome simple barriers by themselves; without lecturing or any sort of sales pitch; just plain old wholesome, good fashion drinking.

But I was not off the hook yet, indeed far from it as the conversation turned – again – to the scientific (And I got the sense there were a couple of Biology and Neuroscience PHD’s amongst us) as the thirst for answers to the headache and red wine question was insatiable.

I started to explain tannins, or the phenolic flavonoids called anthocyanins that are derived from grape skins and as a natural component and elementary part of extracting colour pigment in the fermentation process for red wine.

These grape tannins are completely different to the tannins in tea or chocolate (it is a complex science) so you have to look at red wine composition in its overall level of extraction and how ripe were the grapes, how concentrated was the Must in terms of water to pulp ratio, how much skin and seed contact in terms of pre or post fermentation.

Most wine drinkers grasp the physiology of a big heavy red, however it is not just about grape tannins; there are wood tannins (hydrolysable tannins) from oak barrels to consider as well, in fact what I believe are a large contributor to headaches.

Equally, a youthful red wine from inherently thick-skinned tannic red grape variety, such as nebbiolo (Barolo, Barbaresco) or cabernet sauvignon (Bordeaux, Napa Valley, South Africa etc) will be typically tannic, and these tannins will not be resolved (soften, evolve) without the requisite bottle age (often 10 to 15 years and more) and highly likely to give those who suffer from red wine sensitivities a headache.

On the other hand, the thin-skinned pinot noir grape has a low-tannin physiology moreover, these tannins are polymerized throughout the wine; that is they are spread evenly from start to finish and often so fine that they are barely perceptible and have a textural impression of viscous, luscious, softness and smoothness leading to the descriptors ‘silky’ and ‘velvety’ in mouth-feel.

That said, you will find that certain pinot noirs from burgundy do have a perceptible level dry extract and firmer tannins, particularly if from the higher-echelon appellations that will have most likely been matured in new oak however the structure here is also accentuated by genetically high acidity intrinsic to the pinot noir grape and what makes it so versatile with so many cuisines.

This beckoned the question from one of my group, “So, New Zealand Pinot Noirs, like this Ata Rangi, are lighter or less tannic? It seems so approachable… and delicious… I can’t stop drinking it!”

My reply to this was to highlight the comparison between the aspect of climate and hemisphere, and that we know pinot noirs thin skin is very susceptible to climatical-influences as it ripens; in theory burgundy having much more cloud-cover or less direct sunlight and a marginal, cool-climate translating to a firmer structure and more deep-seated acidity, whereas as New Zealand has dry, clear and bright sunshine days with an extraordinary diurnal temperature – that is the warm day turns rapidly to an exceptionally cool night-time – resulting in bright acidities and seemingly accentuated berry fruit flavours.

I know I am generalising but I believe it is these bright acidities carrying the red and black berry fruit flavours and nuances in New Zealand Pinot Noir that is fundamental to its perceived approachability, as most palates perceive this marked fruitiness as sweetness – not sugar – but simply generous and luscious, caressing sensations coupled with a lightness in structure – or in wine writers vernacular, elegance, ethereal, silky etc – but really, lightness captures it succinctly.

Just when I thought we could get on with some Asian food and wine pairing discussion – yes what we were all here for in the first place – out pops another demanding question. “What about histamines? My doctor said it is the histamines in red wine that are giving me headaches”.

This one I dealt with quickly, citing a report in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology where a study of 16 people with intolerance to red wine found no difference in reactions to low and high histamine wines.

So, histamines are not the cause of these headaches. Yes, red wine has more histamines than white wine, but most white wine has no tannin (unless oak-matured, so a little) and almost everyone I come across who has an acute wine sensitivity is reasonably ok with white, but cannot drink red.

Now preaching to my group, I declared that I am convinced that tannin is the cause of these headaches; high-tannin extractive reds that simply do your head in. And to impress them even more and driving home the message, I said, you know, Harvard have conducted several experiments on tannin and have established that tannins cause the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, and high levels of serotonin can cause headaches. So don’t drink cabernet sauvignon!

As a personal observation, I find as you get older, you can’t drink big, full-bodied reds anyway or that is, the recovery time from a night out with my wine drinking circle and subjected to all number of bruising reds now runs into days.

Interestingly, I had this very conversation with Christophe Thomas, Sales Director of Maison Joseph Drouhin, who said to me, “It is a fact that mostly mature palates only appreciate pinot noir. In Burgundy, our consumer demographic is largely people who are 45 to 50 and older, who have discovered they like gentle wines, which leaves us with a big problem with the younger drinkers…”

Frankly, I am quite happy to leave the cabernet sauvignon to more youthful palates, and the overriding evidence here is, drink more New Zealand Pinot Noir, especially if you’re 50 years-old – like me – as it won’t fight back.

As for the pairing of wines with Asian cuisine, if you are remotely interested, follow this link (click here) for the menu, wines and pairing notes. I should also mention I thoroughly impressed our group of ladies in selecting wines that were either made by a woman winemaker or influenced by a woman proprietor, with all the vignerons organic or biodynamic practitioners – and I am very confident the selection is headache free!

Ata Rangi - wildflowers in the vineyard rows


You might also like:

TarraWarra Estate and Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 – Yarra Valley, Victoria, Australia
From the Cellar – Calera Reed Vineyard Pinot Noir 1994 en magnum (Singapore)
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2006, New Zealand
Two Paddocks Pinot Noir 2006 Central Otago, New Zealand
Bald Hills Single Vineyard Pinot Noir 2007 Bannockburn, Central Otago, New Zealand
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