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La Dolce Vita

Are European Wines ‘Healthier’ for us?

Geek was standing near the cold box in one of our favorite Michigan wine shops last week when a patron strolled in and asked: ‘do you have any cold Sancerre?’ We replied: ‘not sure, let’s see’. There was indeed a chilled Sancerre there, but it was $55 and apparently above her budget (Sancerre prices have risen dramatically the last 2 years). She then asked: ‘what’s another good French white you would recommend for around $30? I can only drink French wines because U.S. wines give me a headache’. Oh boy.

We have heard similar claims many, many times over the years, combined with the notion that it’s because U.S. produced wines have many more additives and that European wines are ‘cleaner’. But –spoiler alert—it’s essentially untrue. We’re not stating that those that make these claims are imagining things: we just think its likely something other than ‘they don’t use as many additives in European wines’. Yes, there is a slightly longer list of additives and adjuncts that U.S. producers are allowed to use compared to their E.U. counterparts, but most U.S. producers do not use these hacks. And for the record, among the many products allowed to be (safely) used in both areas, ox blood—an effective fining agent– was still allowed to be used in the E.U. until 1997; no wonder we don’t see many oxen in Europe these days! Actually, it is more logical to divide wines into the groups of traditionally made, artisanal, low-intervention wines vs commercial, large volume, manipulated wines rather than by which side of the Atlantic they were produced in. There are numerous possible explanations for travelers’ perceptions.

First & foremost–generally speaking–European wines are lower in alcohol than most U.S. wines. This is simply a factor of climate, as in our major wine producing areas (California) are warmer than most of Europe’s classic wine zones. Riper grapes = more alcohol. It is quite normal now for Napa Cabernet to be around 15 degrees of alcohol; it is a rare Bordeaux that tops 13.5%. That ‘minor’ additional 1.5% means its 10% higher. And many other popular wines in Europe are still around 12% alcohol: 3 degrees means over 20% higher alcohol…not a tiny difference.

Next is the ‘sulfites thing’. Indeed, there are some wines made that have no additional sulfites added, though we’re not going to go down the ‘natural wine’ rabbit hole today. Unlike in the U.S., wines sold in the E.U. do not need to state on label ‘contains sulfites’, which leads some to believe that they do not contain sulfites.  All wine made from grapes have sulfites, since they occur naturally during fermentation. But most wineries add additional amounts—which keeps the wines sound and stable—and quality-minded producers use a minimal amount—on both sides of the ocean. Note too that if one drinks one serving of orange juice, has dried fruit or jam…they have likely ingested more sulfites than if they were to drink an entire case of wine. 

Finally, there is the ‘vacation syndrome’ factor. When visiting Europe, most visitors eat & drink well (they’re on vacation after all). They have wine with their meals, as opposed to just as a ‘cocktail’. Bottled water is ubiquitous on tables in France & Italy and throwing back water with your wine does tend to mitigate potential ‘headaches’. Add to this, most people are very active on vacation: it is a 2 mile walk from the Eifel Tower to the Louvre, and then an 8 mile walk if you want to see all of the Louvre—burning calories and burning last night’s wine with dinner.

So, a person might be 100% correct that they don’t seem to suffer the same effects when drinking wine in Europe, but it is likely not due to winemaking practices: it is due to the European lifestyle…La Dolce Vita.

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