Low and No Sulphur Wines – All You Need to Know about Sulphites in Wine
The terms “No Sulphur Added” or “Low Sulphite” convey the impression that we’re avoiding something that could be harmful for our health. After all, if a product claims to be “low” in something, surely that something is bad for us, right?
This presumption certainly seems to have taken hold, since labelling of wine with ‘contains sulphites’ (for over 10 parts per million) allergen advice, became compulsory a few years back.
Sulphites have gained a pretty bad reputation, but most people don’t understand what’s wrong with the sulphites in the first place? Do you know about sulphites, or why there are sulphites in wine? Is wine without sulphites better, or is it all marketing hype?
On this page, you’ll find all the answers to your questions! Read on to find out more, and what’s the real truth about low sulphite wine…
What are Sulphites?
Sulphites, Sulphur dioxide, and SO2 all describe the same thing: in winemaking it is most commonly added in the forms of potassium metabisulphite, ammonium or potassium bisulphite.
It is used as an antiseptic and antimicrobial, to kill off unwanted moulds, bacteria and yeasts and it is also an antioxidant helping to inhibit oxygen reacting with and spoiling the wine.
Most winemakers use sulphites in varying amounts, helping to fight off both bacteria and oxidation, making it a useful chemical to preserve wine.
You may be surprised to learn that a very small amount of sulphur is produced as a natural by product of the fermentation process (usually under 10ppm). The human body produces around 1 gram (1000 milligrams) of sulphites per day, and in nature mustard plants actually create sulphur, and then of course there is natural sulphur which can be mined from the earth, and volcanic sulphur too.
These sulphur compounds are also used to preserve dried fruits (eg apricots) and crop up in all kinds of ready meals, tinned foods, squash drinks etc.
There is an argument that mined or volcanic sulphur, is both much more efficient and a less toxic anti-oxidant, than the more industrially produced ‘chemical’ version which is derived from the petro-chemical industry, which can contain more harmful compounds like arsenic and tar.
About Sulphites and Wine Side Effects
Sulphites seem to have got a very bad reputation more recently. This is possibly a little unfair as it’s all too easy to blame all side affects on sulphur!
Over-sulphured wine is often unpleasant, and the raw material (sulphur liquid or powder) as it’s used, would make you gag and cough if you caught a whiff of it. For asthmatics it can be downright dangerous, and for some who are sensitive or mildly allergic it can cause rashes, flu like symptoms or even severe headaches.
Our bodies are all different, and we all react differently (it might be true though, that more than the fair share of hangovers get blamed on sulphites, as alcohol also has an affect!). What is true, is that many of our customers report a better or clearer, ‘morning after’ feeling, following drinking No Sulphur Added or Low Sulphur wines.
An increasing number of people see avoiding additives as a stepping stone towards health improvement.
Sulphites cause headaches. There is no established scientific link between sulphites and headaches, though there is much anecdotal evidence. There are other compounds in wines (histamines, tannins, etc.) that could be causing the problem too.
So What’s the Problem?
For the average person, sulphites aren’t a problem. You can consume food or drink that contains sulphites (such as wine) without any major risk of side effects.
However, a very small number of people who suffer from asthma (roughly 5 to 10% of asthma cases) develop a sensitivity to sulphites. The sensitivity can be fairly mild, but in severe cases, it can cause serious health problems.
This is why wines now have to be labelled with this allergen advice.
How Much Sulphites in Wine? And Organic Wine
This is an interesting question, and the answer is: it all depends on the wine, how it is made and whether it is white, red, sweet or dry.
The amount of sulphites in wine ranges anywhere from under 10 to 350 + parts-per-million.
The good news is that you will never have an ‘over-sulphured’ organic wine or biodynamic wine, because the maximum levels allowed under their certification systems, is less than is allowed in conventional winemaking.
As a general rule and guide, red wines need less sulphur than white wines, as reds have natural compounds in the tannins and skins that help protect the wine naturally. Drier white wines are often more delicate and fragile, requiring extra sulphur to help preserve.
This is true, unless they are made using skin contact methods (similar to reds) which gives added protection and these, more ‘natural’ or ‘orange wines’ are growing in popularity.
Sweet wines will always require a lot more sulphur, as it combines and binds with the sugar first, before any free sulphur dioxide can do its job. If you are sensitive to sulphur, it is important to stay away from any sweet wine.
100mg/litre for reds (conventional at 150mg/L) if under 2mg/L residual sugar.
120mg/Litre for reds (conventional at 150mg/L) if over 2mg/L residual sugar
150mg/Litre for whites and roses (conventional at 200mg/L) if under 2mg/L residual sugar.
130 mg/Litre for whites and roses (conventional 200mg/L) if over 2mg/L residual sugar.
270mg/Litre for sweet (without botrytis) wines (conventional at 300mg/L)
370 mg/L for sweet botrytis wines (400mg/L for conventional)
Maximum levels allowed in biodynamic winemaking are even lower.
Is Wine with No Sulphites Added Better?
As to whether or not the wine is “better”, the answer is not straightforward.
SELECTION IS VITAL – we know there are many poor, tainted and badly oxidised examples of ‘No Sulphur Added’ wines around, but we’ve done the work for you and selected some of the best around at competitive prices. (See our website or Wine List).
When the wines are good, they’re really good, and a growing number of winemakers are starting to believe it’s the way to make some of the best wines. Yes, it’s difficult, and yes it may not be possible in all vintages and considering the organic angle (Vintage Roots wines) too, it’s a serious challenge.
There are many more No Sulphur Added reds than whites as it is easier to make them, compared to No Sulphur Added whites. In general the wines tend to be much more fruit forward and generous in style, with deeper colours and lots of aroma. Sulphur addition does dampen fruit aromatics and bleaches colour, so one could argue that No Sulphur Added wines, are wines in their purest expression.
A very slight spritz or fizz can occur with these wines, which is not a fault, but it helps with preservation. We suggest you open No Sulphur Added wines early, and even consider decanting them first or pouring them into a jug for serving. For reds a light chilling can also be beneficial. In our experience the wines (specially reds) keep and age just as well as conventional wines in bottle.
How to Know if You’re Drinking Low Sulphite Wine
If you want to drink wines without sulphites added, or to choose Low Sulphite wine, you have to know how to find these.VintageRoots is proud to offer an extensive collection of the best available from around the world!
No Sulphur Added wines are often marked clearly with this information on the front label. Also you can look for the NS symbol against wines in our Wine List or on our website.
Low Sulphur wines are those where we have identified the winemakers using just 50% or less of their maximum allowed dosage for organic rules. We clearly mark these wines with an LS symbol.
Natural wines are often mentioned and much discussed these days. Many Vintage Roots wines could be described as ‘natural’, but as yet there is no legal definition for this term.
Organic and biodynamic farming is a minimum (but certification not necessary), and use of natural yeasts for fermentation a must, with little or no further intervention in the winemaking. Generally sulphur levels are low in natural wines.
The Best Wines for You: Organic No Sulphur Added Wines
One could argue that these are amongst the purest wines you’ll ever find. Why not give them a go and see how you enjoy the flavours? And also see how you feel the next day too.