Wine & Sulphur
Sulphur in wine is one of those highly emotive and quite controversial subjects. So before we start debating this subject, I should start by giving you a few facts: ALL WINES contain sulphur dioxide in some form that are usually known collectively as sulphites. Used since classical times as an antioxidant (a preservative and a disinfectant and mentioned by Pliny and Cato) sulphur is widely used in the production of wines, pre-packed vegetables, dried fruits among other foods and is often described on packaging as E220 (known as 220 in the US).
Secondly, sulphur is organic; it is an element found in nature. Its main role in winemaking is as a powerful anti-oxidant. This is more necessary for white and rosé wines (which are fermented without the skins and pips). Grape skins and pips contain anthocyanins (such as tannins) that are also valuable anti-oxidants; because red wines are fermented with the skins and pips, they need less sulphur added to them. Sweet wines contain the highest amount of sulphur because the sugar binds a higher proportion of any Sulphur dioxide added. Even when no sulphur is added, there are usually about 10 milligrams per liter in a bottle of wine.
Too much sulphur can alter wine quite dramatically (and some commercial wines have as much as ten or 20 times the amount of naturally occurring sulphur). It can give an odd taste like that of a recently struck match; it can cause allergic reactions, cause coughing and wheezing and can exacerbate a hangover.
There are two kinds of sulphur in wine; free and bound sulphur dioxide. Free sulphur is active and useful whilst bound sulphur combines with other elements in wine and no longer has any use. Winemakers try to get the highest proportion of free sulphur in their wines (which usually is about half the amount of bound sulphur). Most quality red wines contain between 30 and 80 milligrams of sulphur per liter; any wine that contains more than 10 mgs/l of sulphur (naturally occurring) has to add the “contains sulphites” warning to its bottle.
The whole question of labeling a wine “contains sulphites” started in the United States about 25 years ago. There, wine is judged as a liquor and falls under the administration of the Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco whereas all foodstuffs and juices fall under the aegis of the Food and Drug Administration. Wine was therefore judged much more harshly. In fact, there are several foods that have far more amounts of sulphur than wine such as pre-packed salads, dried fruits and certain sweet yoghurts.
However, the US ruling did start a debate about sulphur in wine and it is true that there were abuses with large-scale wine operations not willing to take risks with oxidation and therefore using far more sulphur in winemaking than necessary. In a recent article for the Financial Times, Jancis Robinson MW stated: “At the start of the 20th century some wines contained as much as 500 mg/l. In the 1960s and 1970s, when standards of winemaking and winery hygiene were much lower than today’s, it was common to come across wines that reeked of sulphur — especially the many in those days with considerable residual (and re-fermentable) sugar.”
Today, the EU’s maximum permitted levels are 150 mg/l in dry reds, 200 mg/l in dry whites and rosés, 235 mg/l in sparkling wines, and 250 mg/l in sweet whites and rosés. Some really sweet wines, however, such as Sauternes and Trockenbeerenauslese, may contain up to 400 mg/l. In 2012 the EU regulators agreed on even lower levels for organic wines: 100 mg/l for dry reds, 150 mg/l for whites and rosés, and 220 mg/l for most sweet wines. Maximum levels for dry wines outside Europe are generally 350 mg/l in the US, 300 mg/l in Chile, 250 mg/l in Australia, 130-180 mg/l in Argentina and 150-160 mg/l in South Africa.
For those of you seasoned wine drinkers out there, you will have noticed that sulphur levels in wine have decreased considerably over the last couple of decades as temperature control and better hygiene have been installed in more modern cellars. However, spurred on by the “Contains Sulphites” mention on the labels, more and more wine consumers are asking about the level of sulphur in wine. The lowest sulphur levels in wine are found in organic wines as the figures quoted above clearly show, even though sulphur is one of the few weapons in the bio armory that can be used against vine diseases and viruses. One of the key international proponents of Natural Wines is fellow Master of Wine, Isabelle Legeron who runs the RAW wine fair each year. She limits wine levels to a maximum of 70 mg/l for all wines shown there with the majority being between 10 and 60 mg/l, much less than in most conventional wines.
However I should perhaps finish with a little warning about Natural Wine: Just because a wine is called “natural” or has “no added sulphur”, doesn’t mean that it is good. One difficulty is that with global warming, the acid levels in grapes tend to fall faster as the grapes ripen quicker than they used to do, with a subsequent rise in pH. These pH levels govern the amount of free sulphur dioxide available to combat harmful microbes; the higher they are, the more likely the wine is to be exposed to microbes and become bacterially unstable.
In my experience these wines neither age nor travel well and almost half of the “no sulphur” wines that I taste at organic wine tastings are positively stinky and unpleasant. I acknowledge that the quality of organic wine has improved considerably over the last decade so really there is no excuse for making bad wines just because they are “natural.” However, if I mention this, I am often quite unpopular as the Bio Terroirists sit on their high horses and look down on those of us who favour purity and freshness in our wines (Natural wines are often “pure” in name rather than in flavour).
As Alexandre Thienpont of Vieux Chateau Certan likes to say, squeezing together his thumb and index figure to make his point: “In winemaking, we are so close to making vinegar, that we need to be so careful how we make and preserve our wines.”
I invite you also to read a very interesting article written by Hugh Johnson in Decanter about natural wines. (read here)
Here is a list of our organic producers: (We sell no “Non Sulphur” wines, although Luc Guenard at Chateau Valcombe is virtually “sulphur free”)
Château Couhins, Pessac-Léognan
Menade, Verdejo, Rueda D O
Marigny-Neuf, Sauvignon, Val de Loire
Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf du Pape
Château Valcombe, Epicure Blanc, Ventoux
Weingut Dreissigacker, Organic Riesling, Trocken, Rheinhessen
Arlemont, Chardonnay, Pays d’Oc
Château Couhins, Pessac-Léognan
Château Sénéjac, Haut-Médoc
Haut-Médoc, Haut-Médoc, Thienpont Selection
Château La Tour Figeac, Saint-Émilion Grand Cru
Château Goubau, ‘la Source’, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Château Goubau, Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux
Marigny-Neuf, Cabernet Franc, Val de Loire
Marigny-Neuf, Pinot-Noir, Val de Loire
Château La Nerthe, Châteauneuf du Pape
Château Valcombe, Epicure Rouge, Ventoux
Château Valcombe, La Spéciale, Ventoux
Domaine Métrat, Chiroubles
Domaine Métrat, La Roilette, Fleurie
Domaine de la Renjarde, Côtes du Rhône Villages
Château La Pagèze, La Clape
Marigny-Neuf, Val de Loire
Le Prieuré de Montézargues, Tavel
© Fiona Morrison M.W.