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What about these Sulphites then??

Dear all

So i am thinking about SO2.  Many customers come in and are intrigued to see all the bits floating around in so many of the wines and even more intrigued to hear about natural production, biodynamic vines, and minimal use of sulphur.

Sulphites are the in thing with wine at the moment.  Many consumers have heard about them and are aware that they can be bad for you but there is a lot of misunderstanding.  There is also a lot of discussion in the trade about their use and if wine can be made successfully without them.

Firstly, all wine contains some sulfites as a natural by-product of fermentation.

Sulphites used correctly in minimal quantity are not necessarily a bad thing and are not likely to be the cause of the 'head ache', (this is more likely the booze, there is no getting away from it).  It serves as an antibiotic and antioxidant, protecting wine from spoilage by bacteria and oxidation.  Its antimicrobial action also helps to minimize volatile acidity.  (read more about the properites of sulphur dioxide).

Sulphur dioxide should not be confused with the powdered sulphur which is sometimes dusted onto vines to protect them from powdery mildew (called oidium in French), even in organic viticulture (although not in biodynamic viticulture).

Sulphur is added at various stages of the wine making process.  There are four points at which sulphur dioxide is commonly used in conventional winemaking, although the winemaker may choose to make further additions if he is feeling nervous (or lazy).

  • Picking Applied in the form of metabisulfite to inhibit the action of wild yeasts and prevent oxidation. It means the grapes don't have to be rushed to the winery. In other words, producers can make more and be more casual about their harvesting and general treatment of the grapes.
  • Crushing To prevent fermentation from beginning with wild yeasts before cultured yeasts can be added. Cultured yeasts are bred to be more resistant to SO2.  NB All biodynamic wine makers will use only natural yeasts and rather than try and suppress them they actively want them!  To biodynamic wine amkers it seems ludicrous, not to mention unhealthy to suppress yeast with SO2, only to add chemical yeast to ferment the wine....
  • Fermentation At any point during fermentation, but most commonly at the end to stop or prevent malolactic fermentation.  A natural winemaker has to wait for the malo to finish naturally, if it occurs and sometimes it doesn't hence the wine being allowed to naturally express a style that is inherent in its grapes and terroir that particular vintage.
  • Bottling To prevent oxidation (or any other microbial action) in the bottled wine. In sweet wines there is the danger that fermentation will restart.  This does happen in some unfiltered naturally made wines however it is not necessarily a bad thing.  Fermentation in the bottle will use up a little more sugar hwoever the resultant carbon dioxide will act as a 'natural' preservative and antioxidant and will help the wine mature.  Ince opened the small amount of gas will soon dissipate to leave just the natural flavours of the wine.

A Biodynamic winemaker would only ever use sulphur dioxide at bottling, only in white wines, and only in very small quantities. Many biodynamic winemakers use none at all.

In higher concentrations the molecular form of SO2 can give off a pungent odour reminiscent of rotten eggs.  Higher levels of So2 can also result in the wine becoming reduced (the opposite of oxidised) which also gives off a foul aroma although this will dissipate once the wine has been in contact with oxygen and doesn't mean the wine is necessarily bad.  Reduction aromas used to be far more prevalent in the bad old says of very libreal use of SOs in all stages of the wine making process.  Nowadays, it is less common but does still occur.

Total SO2 levels in wine are monitored and restricted to protect the consumer although the level varies a lot.  In general, the more indistrial large scale wineries (the wines that end up on your supermarket shelf) use higher levels and smaller producers tend to be more careful.

Organic and specifically Biodynamic wine makers use much smaller amounts of SO2 and this is very important to us biodynamic devotees and our discussion about natural production and the pursuit of quality.

  • Wines with total SO2 concentrations below 10 parts per millon (ppm) do not require "contains sulfites" on the label by US and EU laws.
  • The upper limit of total SO2 allowed in wine in the US is 350 ppm
  • In the EU the upper limit is 160 ppm for red wines and 210 ppm for white and rosé wines.
  • Demeter certified Biodynamic wine producers have an upper limit of 70 ppm for red and 90 for white and rose.
  • Dessert wines have a higher threshold due to the risk of refermentation.  400 ppm for the EU, 210 ppm for Biodynamic.
  • In low concentrations, SO2 is mostly undetectable in wine, but at free SO2 concentrations over 50 ppm, SO2 becomes evident in the nose and taste of wine.
  • In practice, many biodynamic wine makers will use much less SO2 than is allowed and the final wine will have as much as half of the permitted levels.

Finally, the vexed question, 'can you make good wine without sulphur?'  Well th answer is yes.  In fact at Buon Vino, we believe wines without sulphur are very often the best wines.  Certainly they produce the most authentic flavours and once you start drinking them, sulphured wines taste downright artificial.

However, don't take my word for it, have a look at this extract from the recent RAW wine fair discussion group on the subject.....and then come to to buy some!

'Before we get down and dirty with numbers, however, we thought we’d start this final RAW 2013 newsletter by sharing an extract of an exchange that took place during the No-added SO2 Talk-Tasting, on the Monday afternoon of the fair. The two protagonists were part of the audience - one is a UK importer of fine wines, the other is a leading figure in the UK (if not the world) wine establishment. It was a heartwarming exchange, not just because they are both gorgeous people, but because it vindicates the work that RAW communities everywhere do year round. Thank you David & David for being such great sports and agreeing to have us share this with everyone.'

David Harvey, Raeburn Fine Wines:

There is a gentleman in the room who wrote an industry standard textbook called ‘Understanding Wine Technology’. He taught quite a few people in the room as well as at the tasting today. He put us through our wine certificates and our wine diplomas, through the WSET. So I wondered if, as someone who understands fermentation and elevage from the microchemistry perspective, can I ask David Bird MW to comment on his reaction to the wines.

David Bird MW, highly respected figure in the UK wine trade:

Thank you very much. There is no doubt in my mind that excess use of SO2 destroys wine. What I have tasted today has shown me that the minimum use of SO2 produces the best wines. SO2 destroys fruit, I am in no doubt at all about that. I have tasted wines today that I have found remarkable. It completely convinces me that a lot of this so-called, minimum use of SO2, natural winemaking is wonderful. It can produce stuff that is not very acceptable, I have tasted a few today that I would not drink at all, but I have tasted many wines today which are absolutely wonderful. There’s no doubt at all that if you can make wines with ripe grapes...just treating them naturally with a minimum use of SO2, or nil SO2, produces fantastic wines.

[To David]

You have landed me right in it!

[Everyone laughs]

I have produced a book on understanding wine technology, yes, and modern winemaking is a lot about using SO2, controlling fermentation, controlling temperatures, and yes you have to know that before you can pass your diploma or become a Master of Wine, as Isabelle well knows. But there is an alternative way, and the alternative way is better.