There is an awful lot of talk these days about ‘no-added-sulphur’, ‘low sulphur’ and ‘sulphur-free’ wines. As all our producers are organic and, or biodynamically certified, you can be confident that every wine on the list has had its levels of sulphur controlled and that the limits are less than those in conventional wines which is very good news. But why might you ask? What is the big deal about sulphur and wine anyway?
Say sulphur and what comes to mind? The smell and its associations with prank cushions? The spring baths – and their healing properties – at Bath, Buxton and Harrogate? Perhaps your first thought was for the humble matchstick. Whatever sulphur means to you the fact is the compound is a big part of our everyday lives and has been for thousands of years – even in the world of wine.
The ancient Roman and Greek civilisations were quick to discover sulphur’s qualities as a preservative. Sulphur was used to seal cracks in their amphorae but when it was used for internal repairs, they soon discovered it was soluble (not so helpful!) and was, more importantly, stopping their precious wine from deteriorating into vinegar. There are documents from the first century AD that describe sulphur being burnt inside wine vessels to prevent oxidation. When we talk about oxidation in the negative sense it’s when the wine, exposed to air for too long, begins to turn brown and take on vinegary aromas.
If we skip on a few millennia to the twentieth century the presence of sulphur in wine production is widespread. It is being used to kill off the unwanted bacteria and yeasts and to prevent premature oxidation. Wine producers have realised that grape skins, split and torn in rough harvesting can be temporarily ‘band-aided’ with a sprinkling of SO2. Barrels and wineries are regularly cleaned with it and frequently, come bottling, a dash more sulphur is added for stability and enduring freshness. At this point in time you might well have come across a wine that contained 500 mg/litre of sulphur.
Is sulphur all bad and is there such a thing as ‘sulphur-free wine?
It is important to say at this stage that the demonisation of sulphur isn’t fair. For a start it’s a natural by-product of the fermentation process. There is no such thing as a 100% sulphur-free wine. Also, homeopaths use the sulphur mineral to treat some skin problems. It is not necessarily dangerous. Equally the role of sulphur in ‘cleaning up’ the winemaking act has been important. It has played a crucial part in helping winemakers deliver consistent, stable wines to a very happy wine-drinking community. Nonetheless, widespread use of sulphur products in convenience foods, canned foods and dried fruit has seen a rise in sensitivity to sulphur and so it’s important we know how to reduce our exposure to it if we can. As an aside, there is typically more SO2 in one dried apricot than in a glass of wine!
A few numbers and rules about low-sulphite wine
An unlucky wine drinker in the 1960s might have hit on a bottle that had 500 mg/litre of sulphur in it but by the 1990s the EU had stepped in and restricted permitted levels to half that. Today the legal limit they’ve set is 150 mg/litre for red wines and 200 mg/litre for white wines. Better still, organic wine drinkers are exposed to less sulphur because their limits are 100mg/litre for reds and 150mg/litre for white. Some sweet wines are permitted to have up to 400mg/litre, though the average tends towards 220mg/litre. This is because sulphur combines with the sugar first before the remaining ‘free’ sulphur can do its job.
If the total SO2 in a bottle of wine exceeds 10 (yes ten) mg/litre, then EU law dictates that “contains sulphites” must appear on the bottle.
Working towards minimising sulphites in wine
For some winemakers these reductions and limits don’t go far enough and are aiming for lower-levels still or, more ambitiously, to add no added sulphur at all. For those with a sensitivity to sulphur and who suffer from headaches, rashes and nasty cold-like symptoms this is great news. Just as it is for asthma sufferers for whom sulphur can be positively dangerous.
Stellar Organics have been making a ‘No-Sulphur-Added (NSA) range of wines since 2004 and acknowledge the effort and commitment it takes. “A lot of attention to detail in the vineyard and winery is required… regular monitoring of the no sulphur added wine is needed to keep them from oxidation. It’s important to start out with enough wine so that you are able to give sulphur to the wines that show any signs of oxidation.” Winemaker Mauritius Naude goes on to say, “Usually the NSA wines are the one that have better colour and mouth feel, because sulphur has a bleaching effect on red wine.”
For other winemakers, the move to less sulphur is about maximising the wine’s individuality and authenticity. As beneficially cleansing as sulphur can be, it undoubtedly mutes a wine’s personality when used to excess.
When talking about their decision to stop adding sulphites to their wines, Giol say, “[sulphites] have enormous negative effects, which far exceed their benefits, including interfering with the genuine aroma and flavour of the wine and slowing down the maturation of the aromas and…. When we don’t use sulphites, our wines have a more authentic aroma and are more pleasing on the palate.”
Like Stellar Organics, Giol point out that there is an increased risk in making wines with no added sulphur and their decision to use screw cap closures is because they are more effective at preventing oxidation as well as being completely recyclable.
Santa Tresa in Sicily have made a no-added-sulphur Nero d’Avola which they describe as a challenge! “While our organic practices result in all our wines having a real purity of expression, we wanted to develop a Nero d’Avola which really is the essence of Sicily’s premium grape variety.”
It is this drive to deliver highly-expressive and pure wines that is very much at the heart of reduced-sulphur use winemaking. One of the UK’s most enthusiastic proponent of low-sulphur is Master of Wine, Isabelle Legron who is at the forefront of the ‘natural wines’ movement. Growing steadily in popularity, ‘natural wine’ has no clear definition and no certifying body. For us, the it is still a little nebulous and so we are sticking with what’s clearly identifiable and provable.
What to expect from low-sulphur / no-sulphur-added wines
So, how do you look after your low-sulphite wines? Well, not much differently than normal! They’re best kept in a cool spot and away from natural daylight. White wines can be kept for up to two years and reds for up to five, depending on the wine style. You can, if you choose, decant the red wines – no fancy gear required, just pour into a jug and then back into the bottle. And remember, don’t serve your red wines too warm; think cool.
One of the characteristics of NSA wines is that they will oxygenate more quickly than other wines and so it’s quite possible that the wine will change from one glass to the next which is great fun.
Any bad news? Well yes; there are those that will tell you sulphur in wine is the cause of many a wine headache. We don’t doubt you – sulphur sensitivity is a real thing. So too is alcohol and if you drink too much of it, NSA or not, a headache may well follow!
Drinking no-added-sulphur wines is a rewarding choice. You will be drinking a carefully crafted wine that is the result of attentive vineyard management and eagle-eyed vinification. Often hugely expressive, NSA wines give a less-interfered with expression of the place the vines are grown, and the individual grape varieties and chances are, you will taste the wine’s story unfold further, glass by glass.
The Vintage Roots No-Added-Sulphur / Low-Sulfite wine range
At Vintage Roots we want to make sure that our range of No-Added-Sulphur wines is the best on offer. Our selection covers over two dozen wines from top producers from all over the world. We have tasted our way through many, many wines and discounted those that didn’t make the grade. Wines with no-added-sulphur are more susceptible to faults and in our tastings we are fastidious about rejecting any wine that has the faintest whiff of anything unpleasant or troublesome. We love great wine and won’t sell anything that we wouldn’t be happy to drink ourselves.
NSA is an exciting new category in the world of wine and Vintage Roots are leading the way in sourcing the best of the best.