What are ‘Sulphites’ in wine?
Sulphur dioxide and other sulphur compounds (sulphites) are commonly used throughout the winemaking process. In the vineyard they are often used in a spray form to protect vines against both powdery and downy mildew, whilst since antiquity they have played a role as a cleansing agent and as a wine preservative. The burning of sulphur wicks to cleanse empty barrels is a centuries old practice. Sulphites as a gas, powder or tablet are also used during fermentation; to keep a wine stable during its transport and at the point of bottling whether into glass or into bag in box.
Permitted sulphite levels
Red wines have the lowest permitted levels as the crushed skins and stems give the wine natural protection with the release of tannins and antioxidants during maceration. Sweet wines have the highest as sugar combines and binds with a high proportion of any added sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide exists as ‘bound’ and ‘free’, but all that is added is considered with regards to permitted levels.
Permitted usage levels have diminished with time, with the EU currently permitting 150mg / litre and 200mg / litre for white and red wines respectively. All organic, biodynamic certified and those wines considered to be natural have more stringent requirements. However, labelling as ever can be very confusing as the vast majority of wines will display the fact that they ‘contain sulphites.’ This is irrespective of whether the wine is organic, biodynamic, natural and even if the producer has completely avoided the use of sulphites during the wine’s production. A cursory glance at www.food.gov.uk states that ‘We do not believe that any wine can be correctly described as sulphite free’. This is mainly as sulphites are produced as a natural by-product of the normal fermentation process and in all likelihood, even with no or very low additions, this will mean the wine exceeds the maximum permissible level of 10mg/litre.
Thus an organic wine, made with great care with minimum intervention and little or no sulphites is indeed labelled in the same way as something mass produced with sulphites liberally applied throughout to control risks and to make a uniform (and probably uniformly bland) product.
How do sulphites effect the wine and the consumer?
So wines can now be found which are additionally labelled as ‘no added sulphites’ or ‘low sulphites’ to assist the consumer to avoid unwanted sulphur ingestion. There appear to be more and more consumers who are sensitive or intolerant to high levels and rightly so. It is perfectly possible that one’s ‘hangover’ is not entirely a result of the alcohol consumed but quite likely that an excess of sulphites are causing the suffering.
Most of us have tasted and become used to sulphites being present in wine. However, with judicial and minimal use of sulphites a wine can reveal so much more of itself. It’s fruit profile appears much broader and nuanced, there is nothing to dull it after all. Low sulphur wines appear much more vibrant and alive; in particular reds. Overall the wines handled and produced with lower sulphites tend to be extremely more-ish and imbued with a real sense of the raw grape material.
More Wine stock a number of Low Sulphite bag in box wines and wine pouches direct from independent vineyards, try some out and taste the difference for yourself.