Sulphite Free Wine

Sulphites is a broad term used to describe sulphur-based compounds that are widely used in the food and drink industry. They have antioxidant and antibacterial properties, and so are used as preservatives. They are, however, also an allergen for some and if a product contains sulphites over a certain level, they need to be labelled. With consumers increasingly concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the products they buy, demand for organic and low sulphur wines has been growing steadily over the last few years.

At Wanderlust Wine, it’s our ethos to work with producers that respect nature and rely on it rather than using lots of chemicals in the winemaking process. It’s called lutte raisonnée – directly translated as ‘the reasoned fight’ but as one of our French producers said, it means you only use what you absolutely have to on the vines.

Why are sulphites added to wine?

Sulphites play an important role in preventing oxidisation and maintaining a wine’s freshness. They stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing inside wine barrels and are also produced naturally as part of the winemaking process. In fact, it has been used as a preservative and stabiliser in wine for hundreds of years.

Sulphites can be added at many different stages of the process – to the grapes as they are picked, to the juice as it is pressed (for whites), to the crushed fruit in the fermenter (for reds), to the wines during or after fermentation, and at each point of moving the final wine prior to it being bottled.

Producing wine with lower sulphite content can be very difficult in practise. Even organic wine producers find the balance extremely hard. By not using sulphites, the producer risks their wine not being stable, spoiling more quickly or becoming oxidised during winemaking and/or bottling.

Wines with zero sulphur added during the winemaking process are classed as natural wines, which you can read more about on our sustainable wine pages. You can also get wines classified as ‘No Added Sulphites’ – these just contain those sulphites produced naturally during winemaking.

We asked one of our award-winning winemakers, Corrina Wright from Oliver’s Taranga, for her advice and guidance to explain why sulphur is used in winemaking:

“My philosophy with adding sulphur to wines is one of minimal intervention. In fact that is my philosophy with all of my winemaking! I tend not to add any sulphur until fermentation is complete in reds, and just prior to bottling in whites. I am working with Italian varieties such as Fiano and Vermentino with my white wines, so I prefer to make them without sulphur, in the presence of oxygen. The other reason that I don’t add sulphur at this stage is that I am working with indigenous yeasts, which can be affected by the use of sulphur, and I don’t want any of the good, natural bugs to be killed off.

If the picked grapes have any disease present or anything that is upsetting the integrity of the fruit though, I would add sulphur to kill off any negative bugs. Sulphur is a naturally occurring compound that is registered for organic winemaking and grape growing, and as such is an important member of the winemakers and grapegrowers tool kit, perhaps one of the most important”.

How do sulphites affect the taste of wine?

Mass made wines tend to require the use of more sulphites during the winemaking process. This is because they are made from a large quantity of grapes that have varying taste profiles and the winemaker is trying to achieve a consistent taste in each bottle.  Sulphites can help achieve that by reducing the natural expression of the wine – the nuances, complexity and character that can make wine so interesting. On the other hand, wines made without sulphites can suffer from slightly wild, ‘funky’ aromas, which prompt a love/hate reaction in people. Aromas such as stinky feet, cheese, cow shed and farmyard are believed by natural wine enthusiasts to “add character” to the finished product.

In natural wines, oxidation often plays a role in the style of the wine but it’s important to make sure that there are no bugs still around in the wine, as they can quickly turn a wine into vinegar or mousy or any number of other faults.

Health effects of sulphites

The health effects or consequences of sulphites in wine are widely debated, but about 1% of the population is believed to be allergic or sensitive to it. They are also believed to contribute to hangovers along with other chemicals in wine. Aside from this, they have been scientifically proven to have some positive effects, acting as an antioxidant.

Sulphites are one of the 14 allergens that must be labelled on food and drink, so you’ll see ‘Contains Sulphites’ on most bottles of wine. The challenge for people that are allergic to sulphites is figuring out what they can and can’t tolerate. For example, a well made wine can contain less than 200ppm of sulphur compared with common foodstuffs like dried fruit which can contain up to 3000ppm so it’s not just the amount of sulphites present in the wine that causes reactions in people. It may also be due to the chemical makeup of the actual sulphite compounds.

Again, Corrina, offered her advice to us to explain health wise what works best for wine drinkers with allergies:

For those who have allergies to sulphur (i.e. if you sneeze when you smell a wine) keep away from sweet wines, young white wines designed for ageing (such as Riesling and Semillon) and low quality wines as these will have the largest amounts of sulphur added.”

We would recommend for those who are sensitive to sulphites to keep a diary or record and feel free to email the vineyard or merchant who sold you the wine to build an understanding of what you may be more or less sensitive to.

The Wanderlust Wine Approach

We believe sulphite use is about balance. Sulphites are a blessing and a curse; they are needed to stabilise the wine after a year spent nurturing, harvesting, winemaking and bottling but at the same time too much is a bad thing.

What we at Wanderlust look for are winemakers that have a mature, health-conscious view and look to use only what is absolutely necessary. Lutte raisonnée as the French put it. We detail more about this on our page about Sustainability in wine.