MOST ASKED QUESTIONS AT CARO’S #1
At Caro’s we get asked it a lot – are there wines with no sulfites or other preservatives?
The answer is yes. And no. To understand we’d better start at the beginning: what are preservatives? By far the most common preservative in wine (and many foods) is sulphur dioxide – aka SO2 or sulfites (spelled with an ‘i’). While some may say sulfites are toxic, they are not so when used at minute levels. And wine is a small-time offender. An average wine should have less than 150 parts per million, while an average dried apricot may have up to 3000 ppm. In essence, sulfites in wine are imperceptible and beneficial – so what is the fuss about?
It seems wine is suffering from a very modern misconception, but one based in an ancient phenomena – the hangover. We all know what the day-after feels like. And we all want to blame something. And we don’t feel inclined to blame ourselves. As we drag ourselves back from putting out the bottle recycling, the bleary capital letters SO2 shining brightly from the back of the sun-struck wine label, the image of which pierced our throbbing brain before the Panadol kicked in, it’s easy to assume that the culprit must be the added chemical. But is this so?
At Caro’s we find our customers have a lot of pitfalls and misconceptions to contend with around sulfites. So these misconceptions seem like a good place to start:
Misconception #1 Sulfites are a modern invention
Excessive additives are a modern problem, to be sure. At Caro’s we’re in favour of the more natural and sustainable ways of doing things – heck, we’re purveyors of a product that was arguably ‘modernised’ by the Romans. But in fact it was the Romans who started the use of sulfites in wine – they burned sulfur candles in reusable wine vessels to stop the flavours spoiling. Ever since then we’ve been using tiny quantities of this stinky, volcanic substance to keep stuff smelling and tasting clean – a point which seems funny, unless you’re a chemist. So are sulfites a modern invention? The answer is no. Sort of.
Misconception #2 Sulfites are inherently bad
Some people point to the toxic and carcinogenic effects of sulfites (the latter of which are disputed), but these are based on much higher concentrations than are found in wine. In the case of asthmatic-type effects – which, as we’ll see, are the only effects sulfites could cause – it would have to be delivered in gas form to be harmful. Some beer and wine (especially sparkling) may release a tiny amount of SO2 gas during consumption – which may be why sparkling wine sets some people off – but it would not cause anything like ‘toxic’ effect at these concentrations and based in liquid form. Wine merchants haven’t been considered doctors for quite a few centuries, so we at Caro’s suggest you take your own and your GP’s counsel on these matters. But we reckon that if you can eat dried apricots without getting a hangover or cancer then you should feel safe with a moderate amount of wine. And we recommend moderately expensive wine, for various reasons that we’ll explain below.
Just like any substance, a tiny minority of consumers have a genuine, full-blown sulfite allergy. If you have this then you’d already know it – and none of these comments apply to you. There is another small group who have a ‘sensitivity’ to sulfites (a real, testable one). We will discuss this sensitivity later – its effects are not the same as you may think, and hence this group is far smaller than you may realise. Meanwhile, for the great bulk of us the net effect of sulfites is, simply, that our wines taste much better and last much longer. So are sulfites bad? The answer is no. Sort of.
Misconception #3 All sulfites are equal
Sulfites come in two forms – bound and free. As they do their preservative work, sulfite molecules bind with oxygen and other volatile stuff make it more stable. Once ‘bound up’ sulfite molecules are still measurable in the ‘total sulfites’ but they are no longer aggressive or active – they are effectively spent. On the other hand, if a sensitive nose picks up a faintly volcanic whiff in a newly opened bottle of wine, this is the other kind – the active or free sulfites that are still working. These free ones are what the few people with a proper sensitivity might react to. However these non-bound sulfites may only be a tiny proportion of the total sulfites (further reducing the harmful effect). And some people in France may even argue in favour of sulfite-like smells in their wine. Presumably because they’re very sophisticated over there.
Misconception #4 Organic wine is sulfite-free
Organic means no chemicals in the vineyard or winery, right? But sulfites are so crucial and considered so benign – even by organic nuts – that almost all organic wine contains sulfites. Yes – organic wine contains sulfites. The difference is organic and biodynamic producers will generally add as little as possible. This can mean that organic wine may have less than half the sulfites you will find in cheap, mass-produced supermarket wine labels. In this opposite case – bulk, factory-style wine production – machine harvesting is used, ripping broken grapes and other unwanted stuff into enormous bins, which can demand preservatives even before the harvest has left the vineyard. Such wine can be cheap – but can it be good? By contrast organic producers most often hand-harvest their grapes, lovingly plucking whole bunches and carefully transporting them to the press in perfect condition. This traditional organic process is ironically a far more sanitary starting point for fermentation than the unwieldy modern harvest, and therefore less demanding of sulfites in the first place. However – and this is an important point – the same usually applies to boutique, non-organic producers. If you stick with lovingly-made, hand-harvested artisan wines – organic or not – the chances are even those with a sensitivity will never strike a high-sulfite wine. And that’s why we recommend slightly more expensive wines – it can still be $20, but it just has to be… well let’s be honest, it just has to be from Caro’s and not from the supermarket.
Misconception #5 Red wines are worse
Quite the contrary – red wines are usually lower in sulfites. Red wines need fewer preservatives because the colour and tannin compounds from the grape skin and pips act to preserve the wine naturally. This is why red wines age longer, but also why fewer sulfites are generally needed. White wines age a certain time, but with acids being almost the only factor able preserve them this leaves most producers with a choice – either make unpalatably acidic whites or add sulfites. Thus in order to both enjoy them young and to age white wines successfully, higher levels of sulfites are needed than for reds. For many customers this may seem strange – as in the hangover stakes red wine can seem to be the big offender. But here the question is crucial – which volatile elements are you reacting to? Chances are it is not the sulfites, which leads us to the next point…
Misconception #6 Preservatives cause hangovers and wine headaches
Um, no. No headache is likely to be the fault of sulfites. A tiny minority with a genuine sensitivity may experience irritating, semi-asthma conditions – shortness of breath, wheezing – but if drinking turns your head into a bruised brick it’s probably the obvious thing – the alcohol or resulting dehydration. Or possibly it is what people weirdly forget about wine – the complex cocktail of perfectly natural but volatile compounds, deriving from fermented grapes, that float around reacting to each other to create sublime flavours and, occasionally, killer headaches. These phenolics or ‘polyphenols’ are basically the skin and pip-derived solids, of which the colour and tannins are the main components. They are more complex and populous in red wine – which is why red is the hangover bad guy. Oak-derived tannins can have a similar effect, in more trace amounts, which may be why bold Chardonnay drinkers too can seem to have a much more delicate sensibility on the day after.
It’s a funny thing – wine is a self-preserving product, yet we add preservatives. It is fermented after all. To our forebears that meant it was pre-stabilised, and with the techniques of balancing acid and tannin it seems like of all products wine shouldn’t need preservatives, right?
As it happens there are producers who make sulfite-free wine. They are vastly in the minority, but the minority is growing – and in Australia particularly the style is becoming something of a craze. They are not called organic or biodynamic (as we have seen, these more established movements generally use sulfites). Rather the new movement is called ‘natural wine’. Without attempting to cover it here, natural wine denotes organic or biodynamic winemaking but, in addition, a stricter or more obsessively traditional approach in the winery. This can include the ancient practice of fermenting white wines on their skins, just like red, to produce a phenomenon called ‘orange wines’. In some cases – though not all – it can means that no sulfites are added. In all natural wines very, very minimal sulfites would be used.
Such wines as the Silver Wing Nada Pinot Noir is a rare example of a wine with absolutely no sulfites added. And unlike some of the more extreme styles of natural wine, this one has lush and defined fruit – very much like any other example of beautiful, artisan Waipara Pinot Noir. Likewise many of our artisan wines from producers like Pierre-Bise in France’s Loire Valley offer complex, lush wines that are produced organically and with minimal if any use of sulfites. but such wines are rare – very rare – and not the cheapest on our shelf.
So there you are – everything you need to know about sulfites. And as you can see, the answer as to whether there are wines with no preservative is definitely yes. And no.
However it is a growing issue, and every year we have more and more people aware of these issues and asking these questions. so if this blog leaves some queries still bouncing around in your head, then feel free to drop in or drop us a line any time.
In the meantime, for those with a true sensitivity here are 6 tips on staying clear of sulfites:
1) Say no to cask wine
Heaven forbid it should happen to you, but if offered a glass of cask wine politely decline. Cask wine is not only mass-produced but designed to be open for a long time – so heavy on preservatives.
2) Avoid supermarket wine
Most supermarket wine is by nature mass-produced and therefore likely to be additive-rich. Emergencies notwithstanding, play it safe – shop at Caros.
3) Read labels
Some labels will say ‘no preservatives added’ or ‘natural wine’. Likewise organic or biodynamic certification means you are in safe territory.
4) Shop boutique
Failing the above, shop quality. Passionate artisan producers who are smaller or family operations are often safe. If the label says ‘hand-harvested’ that’s also a very good sign.
5) Sulfite removal products
Products like ‘SO2 GO’ exists that remove or neutralise sulfites in wine – without affecting the flavour. They are easy to use and some people with sensitivities swear by them.
6) Ask us
If in doubt about a wine’s sulfites, ask us. If we don’t know we’ll try to find out for you.