Let's Talk Sulfites...
Somehow, in the last 10-20 years, sulfites became the whipping boy for wine additives. The truth is there's nothing wrong with (a responsible amount of) sulfites. If I had to guess what's giving people these headaches, bad reactions, and hangovers from hell, it's one or more of the other 75+ additives the FDA permits in wine, but does not require them to be listed on the label. It's not sulfur that's causing you to feel like ass, but it probably is Acetaldehyde, Dimethyl Dicarbonate, Mega Purple, lack of self-control, or some other ingredient that no human on Earth knows how to pronounce. ~1% of the population has a sulfite sensitivity. Do the math.
What are Sulfites?
They're a derivative of.... sulfur! While they can be derived from elemental sources of sulfur, the vast majority are by-products of the petro-chemical industry through the burning of fossil fuels and the smelting of mineral ores that contain sulfur. Gross. In the wine trade they are generically known as "sulfites," "SO2," or incorrectly (but easier to say), "sulfur." Sulfites can take the form of gas, liquid, powder, or tablet.
Ok, are any wines out there free of sulfites?
No. ALL wines have sulfites. ALL WINE. ALL NATURAL WINE. ALL LOW-INTERVENTION WINE. ALL ALCOHOL. Sulfites are a by-product of fermentation, so literally everything that has been fermented has sulfites in it.
They're also in dried fruit, cheese, cured meat, potato chips, baked goods, jams, the list goes on and on and on. So don't sit there in the corner schlarving a block of cheese while claiming to be allergic to sulfites. You might as well be the the guy self-diagnosed with Celiac Disease drinking beer at Applebee's asking about gluten-free buns.
How are sulfites used?
They can be deployed at any stage of the winemaking process:
- when the grapes come into the winery after being harvested
- during fermentation
- to sanitize equipment
- to shelf stabilize the wine just prior to bottling
Sulfites have antimicrobial properties and are often used at the very beginning of fermentation to eliminate wild yeasts and bacteria that naturally exist on the grape berries. Convenient! If you're a conventional winemaker with no soul who wants to inoculate their wine with commercial yeast and strip their baby of any potential individuality.
Remember??? Naturally occurring wild yeast give wine unique personality, and tell the story of the vineyard and vintage they came from. Commercial yeast controls the fermentation process and homogenizes the wine, squashing the chances of the-little-grape-that-could for blossoming into a magnificent unique wine.
Conventional wine producers use sulfites liberally in order to control "risk" factors and/or make the wine's outcome precisely how they want it. They have too much of a plan for the wine instead of letting the wine be the wine. Kind of like that intense over-bearing baseball dad from the little league days who has some plan for their kid to be the next Babe Ruth (we all know one). Natural growers are more like the little league coach who just wants the kids to be themselves, have fun, do dumb kid stuff in the dugout, and develop personalities.
Natural growers welcome diversity at the potential expense of adversity. They use minimal-intervention techniques to work with the cards nature dealt them each year, relying on the strength and health of their vineyard to yield excellent grapes coated with diverse microflora that will ferment cooperatively in the cellar. When you're practicing low-intervention farming techniques, NOT adding sulfites may even HELP.
Minimal Effective Sulfites vs Nuclear Bomb Sulfites
Sulfites are typically measured in Parts per Million or PPM. However, my brain has a tough time digesting that, so let me illustrate it in civilian terms. A zero/zero natural wine with no added sulfites will naturally contain approximately 15mg per liter. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a very conventional wine can have a legal maximum of 350 mg per liter. The shittiest part about this is that in the US and the EU, any wine with more than 10mg/L needs to list "contains sulfites" on its label. So whether you have 15 or 350 mg/L you list the same warning on your wine label. Not fair to the natural wine producers who are working their butts off with minimal-intervention practices. And it's certainly not cool for the consumer.
Do natural & low-intervention wine producers add sulfites?
Some don't add any at all, while others may add a dash. "Minimal effective sulfur addition" is a term you come across often. I like the producers who aim not to add any, but are willing to add a minimal amount to save their wine in a given vintage. Some vintages the harvest may have the perfect chemistry without adding any sulfur, other years they may not be so confident in their baby's shelf stability, so they add a kiss of sulfites. "Sans soufre" as the French call it, does NOT need to be a hard and fast rule. Isn't the end goal to represent terroir anyways? Pretty tough to illustrate your land and vintage when your wine is oxidized, brown, and tastes like vinegar. Dogma does not accomplish anything.
Why are these responsible producers adding sulfites to their precious hooch?
- commercial realities (i.e. releasing a wine to market sooner than their heart wants to, reluctant importers/distributors, etc.)
- a challenging vintage
- concerns with transportation (the Atlantic Ocean is a big place)
- storage concerns
How do sulfites affect the final wine?
From personal experience, natural wines without added sulfites taste more expressive, lively, and complex. The most show-stopping, mesmerizing, tatoo'd-to-my-memory wines I have ever tasted have been sans-soufre, zero/zero, no-added-sulfite wines from low-intervention winemakers. On the other hand, I've had some that taste like vinegar, farts, or a hamster cage (thanks to the flaw "mouse" that conventional wine-o's love to hate). That's the risk these passionate, brave natural wine producers are taking... bottle variation. You may have 2 bottles of the exact same cuvee from the same vintage that you bought from the same store (Rampant Wine Co, of course 😉 ). One may have changed your life forever, and the other may bring back memories of that childhood hamster.
I supposed the journey is the destination. And that is why I love natural wine, sulfur or no sulfur. The roulette wheel of aromas and flavors is so exciting, that a flawed wine here or there, is worth the discovery of one you'll remember for the rest of your life.
-Charlie Oleary | Founder | Rampant Wine Co.