An Explanation of Preservative Free, Sulphite/Sulfite Free and Natural Wines
For years I have had a bad reaction to wine, or rather to its preservative (sulphur dioxide, food codes 220, 223, 224). The symptoms would be feeling flushed and thirsty, palpitations and headaches, usually appearing in the early hours of the morning; sort of a hangover even though only a glass had been drunk. It made for a miserable day ahead from lack of sleep.
My observation over 35 years of talking to people at our cellar door is that I am far from alone – perhaps 10-15% of people who drink wine have a reaction that concerns them and limits their interest in enjoying wine.
Another observation is that some people react only to white wine, others to red and some to both. This is an interesting question, and in the absence of any real explanation from researchers, I will offer my own theory.
The sulphur dioxide is present in different forms in red and white wines. The acid in white wine ensures a gaseous, volatile form of sulphur dioxide whilst in red wine it is bound to the red pigments, forming a compound that approximates the once widely used anti-biotic “Sulpha Drugs”. So asthma prone individuals can easily have a reaction to white wines whilst people who are allergic or been treated by sulpha drugs can respond to red wines.
One other possible response to red wines could be the presence of “Histamines”, a chemical created by bacteria and present in a range of fermented foods and drinks (eg. salami, beer). Nowadays, with careful acid control, histamine levels in red wines are very low or non-existent.
Alcohol is a muscle relaxant, but also a diuretic (ie makes you pee). Excessive drinking of alcoholic beverages, without topping yourself up with water can induce dehydration (thirstiness) and headaches, that we associate with a hangover. Generally though, with small amounts of consumption, like a glass or two, any feeling of being unwell is more likely to be caused by the preservative.
I am still able to enjoy wine because of some practices that I would commend to others:
1) Never drink young wines (1 to 3 years old), cask, cheap dry and sparkling wines or sweet wines. They have the highest levels of preservative, which is there to protect the wine from infection and oxidation, but suppresses aroma and flavour.
2) Do drink mature, older wines. The preservative levels in wine decays with time. It is at its highest at bottling, then slowly fades away until after about 5-6 years it is very low. From then is the best time to drink wine anyhow.
3) Commercial drops (Pharmaceutical grade 3% Hydrogen Peroxide) are readily available in bottle shops and need to be used precisely. It is strictly one drop per 150 ml glass of young wine to remove all the preservative. If you put one drop into 100ml or into 150 ml of an older wine you will strip out all its flavours and the wine will taste watery. One drop into 250 ml of a 4 or 5 year old wine is about right.
THE PURPOSE OF SULPHUR DIOXIDE
Sulphur dioxide around the world is used at every stage in the making of wine. From adding to the fruit bins as the grapes are picked, as they are juiced and so on, until the wine is bottled.
The purpose is twofold. To protect the grapes and wine from unwanted microbial infection and to limit the oxidation of precious flavour compounds, which gives each wine its distinctive character. With the modern concerns about hygiene and public rejection of spoiled and tainted food products, the growth in sulphur dioxide use has grown in step with modern scientific wine making, that owes much to Louis Pasteur (late 19th Century).
Traditionally wines were consumed quickly, certainly within a year, and by modern standards table wines were rough, often bitter, earthy or vinegary. Fortified wines (with added brandy) were often preferred because the higher alcohol protected the sweet wine from infection.
The use of small additions of sulphur dioxide helped transform the industry to the clean, fresh, flavoursome products in a bottle that we take for granted today.
The issue now is whether it is being overused and consideration should be given to its use only when necessary or in lesser amounts. Sulphur dioxide is a potent chemical and even its presence in wine at parts per million is becoming recognised as a potential health hazard.
Into the controversy over the additions and interference in the wine making process has come a movement, mainly in Europe, who believe there should be no additions of any type, especially sulphur dioxide. ”Natural Wine “ is difficult to define and there is no certification for it anywhere in the world.
The European Commission is the only jurisdiction to have certification for “Organic Wines” and sulphur dioxide addition is permitted at a low level.
Australia has Organic and Biodynamic Certification for vineyards but not for wine. So wines labelled “Organic” do contain some sulphur dioxide.
My experience of European Natural Wines is that they are different, perhaps a little raw and on the margin of what would usually be regarded as ‘faulty’. Definitely for the believer rather than the connoisseur.
Here is the label meaning of sulphur dioxide additions:
|No Sulphite Addition||None added at any stage|
|Sulphite Free/Preservative Free||None detectable|
|Low Sulphites||less than about half legal rate|
|Sulphites Added||less than legal rate|
|Organic and Biodynamic||less than legal rate|
Written by Ken Eckersley, October 2018