We had a booth at a large food and wine show a couple of weeks ago, and a lot of people there told us that they don’t drink red wines because the sulfites give them a headache. Others told us they were happy we had French wines because French wines don’t have sulfites so they could finally drink some reds without getting headaches. No doubt the headaches are real, but both of these things can’t be true at once. Wine contains a lot of different compounds, and people can have sensitivities to any of them, so there’s no way to know specifically what causes the problem. What we can do is clear up a few misconceptions about sulfites.
Sulfites are chemical compounds containing the element sulfur. While they’re added to many foods as a preservative, some sulfites are naturally present in grapes and other foods. They are also created as natural byproducts of fermentation of grape juice to produce wine. Because of this, there is no such thing as a wine that doesn’t contain sulfites – depending on the varieties of grapes and the strains of yeast used to make the wine, there will be between 6 and 40 parts per million (ppm) concentration of sulfites in the wine even if the winemaker doesn’t use additional sulfites. This is true the world over, no matter where the wine is made, since winemakers don’t remove naturally-occurring sulfites from wine. All wine sold in the U.S. must be labeled with the words “contains sulfites” if the wine contains more than 10 ppm of sulfites, including wine labeled as organic. (The organic labeling rules vary by country, but some organic wines labeled as organic can contain up to 100 ppm of sulfites). The U.S. government requires labeling because people with severe asthma can experience adverse reactions to sulfites. Some countries don’t require sulfite labeling, which may have led people to believe that non-American wines they consumed abroad don’t contain any sulfites.
Sulfites serve a useful function in wine, by killing or blocking the action of unwanted bacteria and mold that are ever-present in the environment, and which would either interfere with fermentation or create a different product. Sulfur-containing compounds were used to fight infection before the development of modern antibiotics, so it’s not surprising that they’d have the same effect in wine.
You might think that the alcohol in wine would kill off any critters, but there are strains of bacteria that convert the alcohol in wine into acetic acid, or vinegar, when exposed to air. It’s a tricky business, because the oxygen that is part of the conversion to vinegar also helps some wines to get better with age in the bottle when present in extremely limited amounts. Sulfites slow the vinegar reaction and make it possible to keep wine in the bottle for years. (In fact, most old wines with added sulfites that have “spoiled” aren’t vinegary because the sulfites are still at work. What has happened is that too much oxygen has reacted with other components in the wine to give them a smell like sherry. Sulfites help prevent this from happening too.) Wines containing less than 10 ppm sulfites may be prone to spoiling more quickly, and are best consumed a short time after bottling. Keep in mind that most wines aren’t bottled until six months after the grape harvest, so there’s not much room for error. Scrupulous equipment disinfection to kill the bacteria and bottling the wine under a nitrogen or carbon dioxide “blanket” to eliminate exposure to oxygen can produce a wine that doesn’t require added sulfites, but these techniques will add to the cost and may not be entirely effective.
Winemakers typically add more sulfites to white wines than to red wines. The average concentration of sulfites in white wine is 70 ppm, as opposed to 50 for reds — meaning that people who have some sort of reaction to red wines but not to white wines probably aren’t allergic to sulfites. This is especially true if they can eat dried fruit without a reaction, since much of the dried fruit on the market is treated with a lot more sulfites than most wines.
So what causes the red wine reaction? Some people may be sensitive to the tannins in red wine, but chocolate, coffee, and tea also contain tannins – if people can consume them without a problem, then it’s not the tannins. There is anecdotal evidence that drinking red wines with food can reduce the symptoms, or that taking an anti-inflammatory before drinking red wine can also help. But truth be told, there hasn’t been any real scientific inquiry about red wine reactions, especially compared to the research on health benefits. Like the old joke – a man goes to the doctor and says “My leg hurts when I do this,” and the doctor says, “So stop doing it!” – it’s easier to avoid the problem than figure out what causes it. We feel for you, and not just because we sell wine: it’s sad to think that even one glass of something that gives us such pleasure can send some people to bed clutching their heads in pain. After all, if you’re going to be sick from drinking wine, you might as well have enough to enjoy it first!
Luckily, there are some foods that go well with both white and red wines, so everyone can have something good to drink. According to last Sunday’s New York Times, savory pies are all the rage these days. They give a recipe for a beef stew that cooks for such a long time before you put the crust on it and bake it again that it begs the question why you’d take the extra time to add the pastry. This week’s recipe is for a reasonably easy salmon pie, adapted from a recipe by Emeril Lagasse. It’s a double crust pie, but there’s no reason you couldn’t put the salmon mixture in a greased pie dish without a bottom crust. Emeril also poaches fresh salmon for the pie, but you could use good-quality canned salmon (one that you’d gladly eat without mayonnaise, just pick out the bones and skin and give it a quick rinse, and add a little chopped thyme and parsley). It’s important to have a crust that tastes good, so don’t tell us if you’re using a packaged pie crust to make it. Seriously.
Salmon is a fatty fish that can take a light-bodied red wine and stand up to a full-bodied white. So try any of our “White Sale” white wines, or Château de Clapier’s Calligrappe Red. Something for everyone, and if you choose a white and a red the only issue will be two people drinking a bottle of wine each. Make sure you’re at home for this one!
8 to 10 servings
One pound salmon fillets
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup dry white wine
2 cups water
1 small onion, quartered, plus another large onion, finely chopped
1 bay leaf, plus two sprigs each of fresh thyme and parsley
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 medium-sized baking potatoes, peeled, diced, and boiled in enough water to cover until tender, then drained and mashed
1 large egg, plus another egg lightly beaten with a teaspoon of water
One-half cup cream
A single or double piecrust (recipe follows)
Flour for dusting
Season the fish with salt and pepper. Combine the wine, water, quartered onion, and herbs in a medium-sized skillet and bring to a slight boil. Add the salmon and poach for 8 minutes, then remove the fish from the cooking liquid and let it cool to room temperature. (You can then get rid of the cooking liquid). Flake the salmon into pieces and place in a large bowl.
Heat a little olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the chopped onions, with some salt and pepper, and cook for a few minutes to soften. Add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes (You can also add a little chopped fresh thyme and parsley if you like). Add all of this to the salmon and mix well. Then add the potatoes, egg, and cream, and mix again. Taste for salt and pepper and set aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Dust your rolling surface with some flour. For a double crust pie, roll each piece into a 12-inch circle. Put one round into a deep 10-inch pie plate. Spoon the salmon mixture in, then place the second round of dough on top. Crimp the edges of the pie with your fingers to seal. Use a sharp knife to make a few slashes on the top crust. Brush the top with the egg/water mixture and sprinkle with some salt and pepper. Bake until golden brown, about 30-40 minutes. Cool for a few minutes, then serve.
For a single crust pie, roll out one round of dough into a 12-inch circle. Grease the 10-inch pie plate well and spoon in the salmon mixture. Brush a little of the egg/water mixture around the outside of the lip of the pie plate, then put the top crust on and seal it against the dish with your fingers. Cut the slashes, brush with the egg wash, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and bake until golden brown.
Double Pie Crust (for one crust, use half the ingredients)
Three and a quarter cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
12 tablespoons very cold butter
12 tablespoons cold vegetable shortening
4 to 7 tablespoons ice water
Put the flour and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade and pulse to combine. Add the cold butter and shortening, and do about 10 one-second pulses. The fat should be in pieces ranging from pea-sized to smaller. Add 4 tablespoons ice water and pulse to combine the dough until it just creates a ball, add a bit more water if you need it. If the dough clumps together when you squeeze it with your fingers but doesn’t roll into a ball in the machine that’s OK, just dump out the bowl and shape it into a nice smooth ball with your hands. Flatten the dough into a disk, wrap it in plastic, and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.