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My skin, red wine, sulfates and the Abbey of Saint Hildegard [Apr. 27th, 2009|03:27 pm]
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Working in the vineyards at the Abbey of St. Hildegard

I have loved Australian Shiraz from Wolf Blass.
It has a smokey berry smell tastes, slightly, of the salty, sun stain that a day at the beach leaves on your skin after dark when you light the coals to start the barbe-que coals. I have never been to Australia, but this is a wine that takes you there.

I have loved Baco Noir from Henry of Pelham.
It has richness that puckers into a deep kiss. We drank it at Sunday dinner with the family. Its a sentimental favourite. The wine flavoured our early  romance as I showed my new boyfriend my home region of Canada (we served it at our wedding).

I have loved Californian Red Zinfandel from Buehler.
It washes in on the yellow/green hills of the Napa Valley. One moment slightly bitter rain, the next sweet sunshine. It's an evenings refreshment and the only red wine I have ever drank cold from the refrigerator.

These wines, like all of my favourite food and beverages, are the products of landscapes. Grape, soil and climate and all of natures gifts collude to ensure that no taste is duplicated from vineyard to vineyard, or even from year to year.

At least, that's how it should be.

But, and this hurts me to say, all of my favourite wines have turned on me. All of them have, on one occasion or another, have left me with a burning sensation across my face a few minutes after taking my first sip. 

I have Rosacea. That means the veins under my skin have a hyper flush response to certain allergens or sensitivities. Some people, after being exposed to an allergen, develop a deep blush that fades in a few hours. Some people develop a rash that lasts for days. Others, sees the little veins under their skin break and leave a permanent web of red bumps across their faces. A lot of people with rosacea notice they have a reaction after drinking all red wines every time they take a sip.

In my experience, I can drink red wine without having a flare up. Unless the wines contain excess sulfates. Simple labels that say "Caution: may contain sulfates" are not helpful. Some sulfates occur naturally in grapes. Others are used to clean the wine-making equipment. That, though, doesn't explain why several vintages of my favourite wines don't contain excess sulfates and then, suddenly, one bottle from one year does and leaves me with a red face for several hours or several days.  What does explain it is sulfate solutions sprayed onto the grapes to prevent yeast from growing. When is this a bigger problem resulting in more spraying of the vineyards? A particularly wet growing season.

To make great wine is to be a student of weather. Knowing what to do with the juice in response to changes in the weather, making reliable and traditional combinations and adjustments to the fermentation process, is at the heart of the wine-makers art. At the same time, the use of chemical concentrates to mask the real flavours of the juice, not to mention the use of herbicides and pesticides (even "organic" treatments like sulfates), has interfered with the art of wine-making and jeopardized its status as a natural product.

It could be, that for people like me, enjoying wine may also entail becoming a student of the weather.  I have noticed that most wine experts limit their expertise to one particular wine-producing region. They make a decision about where their focus will be and study the conditions from year to year to determine which wineries and which products will yield the best-tasting wine. Not that I can personally remember if it rained on my own backyard last weekend, let alone whether or not it was a wet Autumn in Gaillac in 2007.

In a world where more wine is available from more regions, that limitation feels like a loss. There are so many places that I cannot travel to, but can visit via my taste buds.  And yet, part of me is also attracted to the idea that one can only be certain about the quality of wine when visiting the vineyard, meeting the people who make the wine and feeling the sun shine at the same angle that it bathes the grapes as they ripen. It has also occurred to me, though, that I wouldn't have to be so careful and limiting if I could just trust wine-makers around the world to let nature do its job.

Recently, my little family visited the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Rüdesheim am Rhein. It wasn't our first visit, but it was the first time our children behaved well enough for us to have a wine tasting in the Klosterladen, the shop where the sisters sell their organic products. We were searching for a wine to go with our Easter celebrations. The sister (we think it was Sister Barbara from Denmark) suggested  the Spätburgunder (late Burgundy), trocken (dry), 2006.

I told her about my sulfate sensitivity and she was taken aback. "Oh, I don't think you'll have a problem," she said. "All of our wines are very pure."

How nice, I thought, as I swished the wine around my mouth, enjoying its mild tanginess and subtle notes of currant. How nice to be able to trust someone. How nice to know that these wine-makers will let the weather do its job and not tamper with nature's product.

We bought three bottles of the late burgundy to share with our friends. Not only did I know they would enjoy it, but I knew my skin would be safe. 

We do live in an era where everyone is asking difficult questions about food and beverage production and how that affects food safety both for human consumption and our environment. It may not be my place to tell wine-makers how to make their wine, but I do think producers owe us consistency in process -- even if they cannot offer us consistency of taste -- just so we know their approach and how it might affect our health and wine-drinking habits in the long term.  For me, that basic trust, would certainly prevent the disappointment of losing an old favourite.

This blog entry was written for the Pinotblogger Wine Blogger Scholarship competition.
 

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