Monthly Archives: February 2013

Why Does American Wine Give Me Headaches?

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Question from Celine: When I travel in Europe I never get headaches from the wine but I do when I drink California wine at home. Why would that be? 

Reply: Hi, Celine. Thanks for writing! This is a very common question. 

People tend to blame their headaches on sulfites. They assume American winemakers use more chemicals than the Europeans do. But, science tells us that sulfites don’t cause headaches. Plus, all wines made, worldwide – added or note – and any variation in the percentage isn’t by country so much as by brand. So you can count the sulfites out. 

Some people get what’s known as the red wine headache, but no one has figured out the cause. There are those who think histamines might be a factor but lots of foods contain histamines, too. And those scientists who discount the theory say you’d more likely get a stuffy nose than a headache from histamines. Some think tannins might cause a histamine-like reaction which would mean red-wine headaches and no reaction to whites. 

Certain amino acids have been linked to migraines but there’s no definitive evidence.  

But, even if these things were the culprits, none of them vary significantly by country of origin. But there is one important component that varies quite a lot by region.

It’s the alcohol! And, of course if anything is likely to give you a headache, it’s a wee bit too much alcohol! 

Why would it vary by country? Well, it varies more by climate and, as it happens, most European regions fall into what we refer to as a cool-climate situations. In the relatively cool growing conditions the grapes get ripe, but don’t reach the sugar levels you might expect in a warm-climate situation. And, the sugar determines the alcohol. 

So, if the winemaker in Burgundy picks his grapes at 22% sugar, he can expect about 11.5 to 12% alcohol. And when the winemaker here, in sunny Napa Valley, picks his Cabernet at 26% sugar, he’ll wind up around 14%. I must confess that you’ll see local wines and those from other warm-climate situations that are even hight than that. When you split a bottle of wine over lunch, that difference can, literally, go to your head. Alcohol is, without a doubt, the most likely suspect when it comes to wine headaches.

What to do? Aside from drinking less wine, try drinking more water. They say a glass of water for every glass of wine prevents dehydration which might help ward off your headache.  Something to keep in mind any time you drink wine, here at home or abroad. 

While they haven’t figured out the cause of red-wine headaches, researchers say that if you take aspirin or ibuprofen before you drink the wine it blocks the headache reaction in a high percentage of people. Tylenol won’t work and taking aspirin after the wine is too late to block the reaction. But it might give you some relief. 

It’s smart to check the alcohol level on the label before your server opens the wine. I always do that when I order Zinfandel because sometimes it’s up around 15 or 16%– yikes!

I hope that helps!

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Gorgeous Wild Mustard in the Napa Valley

Susan wrote in because she was in Napa Valley last weekend and wondered if we plant all the pretty yellow flowers she saw everywhere, and if they serve a purpose.

The mustard season is fleeting! They’re predicting another beautiful weekend here in the Napa Valley, so come on down and take in the view! Cheers!

Visit A Million Cooks for more brief videos from experts on the food you eat: Where it comes from, where to buy it and how to prepare it.

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Grape of the Week: Syrah/Shiraz

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Syrah, UC Davis

Since we made a virtual visit to the Rhône last week, with Viognier, we may as well stay in the neighborhood and check out the most important red grape in the region, Syrah, AKA Shiraz.

What to expect
How about a little intensity?  Expect deep, rich, concentrated flavors – nearly black in color – with spice and tannin to spare! The best will still show beautifully 20 years down the road.

Where Pinot Noir is the seductive “gateway” red, Syrah is for the convicted red-wine lover. The exception is the high production/low-end fruity, somewhat sweet versions that come from Australia. But just as White Zin isn’t representative of the best of California’s Zinfandel, these big-box store bargains don’t tell the whole story for Australia. They also produce some magnificent examples! Penfold’s Grange, for instance.

Of course, Shiraz is the name they use for Syrah in Australia. And, don’t let them hear you say “Shih-RAHZ!” They’re quite definite that it’s pronounced “Shih-RAZZ.” Continue reading

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Grape of the Week: Viognier

Viognier_ucd

Viogner, UC Davis

I know we’re past Valentine’s Day now, but why not give it a long finish and take a look at this very exotic, sexy grape.

Sexy? Absolutely. Sensual? Oh, yeah…

What to expect
If you haven’t gotten around to trying Viognier, please let me encourage you to take the plunge and dive into what Jancis Robinson has referred to as “The hedonist’s white wine.”

This is one big, voluptuous kiss of ripe peaches and apricots, orange blossom, tropical fruit and honeysuckle. And heady, too. Viognier won’t let loose with all those wonderful aromatics unless it’s plenty ripe, so it’s quite common for it to be upwards of 14% alcohol. Of course, the alcohol gives it considerable heft, by white-wine standards so when you’re feeling burnt out on Chardonnay you can easily substitute the highly perfumed Viognier.

I’ve learned the hard way that It isn’t easy to get it right. Poorly made, it can remind you of the syrup in the can of fruit cocktail your Mom served you when you were a kid (I suppose I’m dating myself here.)

It’s usually dry but occasionally you’ll find a sweet one. Not my cup of tea – the sweetness can be cloying – Viognier isn’t a high-acid grape.  Some examples have oak imposed on them, which is hard to understand for a grape with so much up-front charm. If there’s a chance to taste before you buy, go for it! Continue reading

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Sweet Wine For a Sweetheart of a Day

On this sweetest of days, let’s take a look at how sweet wine is made. It’s a fun topic because production of sweet wine can be wonderfully odd!

So, what will you drink tonight? Bubbles? Sweet wine? Red wine? All of the above? 😉

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Low-Acid Wine

Phscale

In my quest to find out what you really want to know, I’ve started checking search analytics. It’s intriguing to see that the most common searches are concerned with acid in wine. The search terms are things like: less acidic white wine, red wine with low acidity, low acid wine list

 

Wine is high in acid
The first thing to know is that wine is a tart beverage. Unless you enjoy eating fresh lemons, wine is more acidic than just about any food you can think of. That’s why it’s so easy to pair with food. The acidity is cleansing.

 

On the pH scale, zero is tart (battery acid), seven is neutral (water) and 14 is alkaline (lye, Drano). Wine normally falls somewhere in the threes. For cool-climate wine it may even dip down into the high twos – very, very tart!

 

The influence of climate
That said, white wines tend to be higher in acid than reds, from 3.0 – 3.5 where reds are usually between 3.3 and 3.8 (I know this is confusing: as the acid goes up, the pH goes down.) It depends upon the variety and the climate. Warm climates produce soft acidity and cool, the opposite. Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling are naturally tart and Chardonnay changes with the environment: warm climate Chards, like most of California or Australia, tend to be soft and cool-climate examples, like Chablis or white Burgundy, are tart.

 

So, for low acid wines, in general, seek out warm climate examples: As we said, most of California and Australia, southern Italy, Argentina, eastern Washington… and keep in mind that the whites are higher than the reds. Continue reading

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Pairing Wine and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day

What could be more romantic than indulging in a little wine and chocolate with your sweetie on Valentine’s day?

But, I should warn you that this particular pairing isn’t always a slam dunk. Here are a few suggestions:

What’s your favorite wine and chocolate pairing?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Visit A Million Cooks for more brief videos from experts on the food you eat: Where it comes from, where to buy it and how to prepare it.

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