As we [thankfully] come to the end of another Dry January, which I have never and will never participate in, I’m reminded that absolutes are almost never a good idea, impossible to keep up with and ultimately rules that beg to be broken. There is a time and place for almost everything, including some much-maligned aspects of the wine world. Here’s a few wine rules you should break:
No to SO2 in winemaking
Is there anything in wine with a worse reputation than sulfur dioxide? Maybe it’s that government mandated warning on every bottle of wine, or maybe it’s the mountain of ill-researched material on the internet blaming sulfites for everything from headaches to anaphylaxis.
In reality, very few people have sulfite sensitivity. But there are still many good reasons to limit sulfur usage as a preservative in wine. The best wines are alive in the bottle, constantly evolving and changing. Adding a bit of sulfur helps that evolution happen in a predictable way, but adding too much sulfur kills the potential for greatness. The best approach is to trust a skilled winemaker to know how much sulfur each vintage needs, rather than setting arbitrary limits on how much sulfur is ok.
Right alongside an intolerance for added preservatives, you’ll find many people take a similar approach to filtering, a process by which solids are removed from finished wines. Many people promote the zero/zero approach to winemaking, meaning nothing added (such as sulfur) and nothing taken away (aka filtering). There are many winemakers making absolutely delicious zero/zero wines, but the style is not for everybody. Many drinkers still prefer wines that are filtered, so that they appear clear in the glass, or don’t have bits of dead yeast floating in them. The important thing to remember is that zero/zero is exactly that: a style. It’s an aesthetic choice, not one of health or ecological responsibility. Filtered wines can be every bit as delicious as unfiltered, and can represent just as honest an approach to winemaking.
White label refers to wines that are purchased as a finished product from a winemaker and labeled as a new brand unrelated to the winemaker’s brand or vineyard name. This practice is common with very inexpensive, poor-quality wine that is sold under many different brand names at low prices. The main goal of many white label wines is simply marketing: obscure the wine’s origins, usually with a completely made-up chateau or vineyard, or a brand name that sounds like a new subdivision in a nice neighborhood.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. Many restaurants will have exclusive bottlings done by well-respected wineries, and usually those partnerships are part of the selling point. In the case of RedThumb, we wanted to offer really delicious wines with a level of consumer transparency that required re-thinking traditional wine labels.
The last thing we want to do is hide how our wines are made or who makes them; our first partnership with Quaderna Via is one of the things we’re most proud of in this adventure. As we continue to expand our offerings we will partner with wineries from around the world, and consumers will always know that any wine carrying the RedThub label will meet our standards and provide the transparency we’re known for. When it comes to white label wines, the question is how much information does the bottle give us?
Just say no to sweet wine
There’s an old adage in the wine business that Americans “order dry but drink sweet.” Many people have been conditioned to think they want wines that are completely dry, but a look at the residual sugar levels in some of the most popular wines on the market reveals this to be untrue. When evaluating sweetness in wine, the question is again one of intent.
Many inexpensive wines will rely on a higher sugar content to mask boring or flawed wine, whether by adding sugar or sugar substitutes, or by stopping fermentation prematurely. It’s the same thing McDonald’s does to make their inexpensive burgers taste better. This is especially common in red wines from California, with many wines in the sub-$10 price range being noticeably sweet on the palate. While it’s perfectly ok to enjoy these wines, it’s important to recognize them for what they are–the Big Macs of the wine world.
However, there is an amazing world of “sweet” wine that deserves to be explored. There are wines considered “off-dry,” where some of the initial sugars aren’t converted to alcohol and lend a perceivable sweetness to the finished product. These can include Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley, Riesling from Germany, or a range of white wines from Alsace. There are slo wines that are manipulated to increase the perceived sweetness, such as Amarone from Italy (or its sweeter cousin Recioto della Valpolicella) and a whole spectrum of sparkling wines, such as those labeled demi-sec or doux, many Lambruscos, and Asti Spumante. And that’s before we even begin to explore the world of dessert wines like Port, Vin Santo, or Eiswein.
Absolutes in wine? Absolutely not.
The wine world is full of misunderstanding, much of it coming from rules and biases that need to be thrown out. The best way to learn about wine is to try as many different styles as you can, with an open mind and a bit of knowledge. The more you do, the more you’ll realize the rules are all there to be broken.