Low sulphur wine is gaining in popularity. More and more consumers are searching for ‘no added sulphur’ or ‘low sulphur red wine’, even ‘sulphur-free wine’.
If you’re drinking organic or biodynamic wine, you can rest easy that the levels of sulphur in your wine are at a controlled minimum, (and a much-reduced rate to conventional, mass-produced wines).
But why would sulphur be in your fermented grape juice in the first place?
Sulphur in wine
Sulphur in wine can be traced back to ancient civilisations, the Greeks and the Romes, for example, realised during their pioneering winemaking days that sulphur, as well as being the delicious smell associated with rotting eggs, made a formidable preservative, preventing their precious wine from becoming vinegar.
As far back as the 1st century AD, there are reports of winemakers burning sulphur candles inside their wine pots (known as amphora) as an anti-oxidation measure.
Fast forward a few thousand years, and sulphur is still used in the wine industry today, for the exact same reason. Not only does sulphur prevent your wine from going off through oxidation, we now know that it kills the bacteria that can also spoil the wine.
So how do some wineries use sulphur?
- Well, knowing how effective sulphur is as a preservative and a disinfectant, some liberally sprinkle a generous helping of SO2 over the grapes prior to fermentation.
- They might also add a splash inside the wine bottles and the ageing barrels to make sure they’re squeaky clean.
- Heck, some even wipe the surfaces of their winery down with the stuff to clean the place.
- And most, while they’re at it, will throw in a good dollop of SO2 during the bottling process, just to make sure their product doesn’t go off before it reaches consumers.
EU limits on sulfites in wine
Once upon a time, in the 1960s, you might have unfortunately stumbled across a bottle of wine with a sulphur content of 500mg/litre, but not anymore. The EU set rules in the 1990s that limited the level of sulphur in wine.
Today, the legal limit, in the EU, for red wine is 100mg/litre, for a white wine that rises to 150mg/litre and for sweet wines, it can go up to 400mg/litre.
Why the different levels for different types of wines?
Here’s the thing, the lower the acidity of the wine, the more it needs something to stabilise it, to prevent it from spoiling in the bottle, to extend its shelf life. Red wines tend to require fewer sulfites than white wines. And sweeter wines need more sulfites to prevent a second fermentation from happening due to the high levels of sugar.
So if sulphur is so beneficial to the winemaking process, why might one then seek out low sulphur wines?
Because, if you have a sensitivity to sulfites, you’ll know that if you have a glass of high sulphur wine, you’ll have a nasty reaction – headaches, cold-like symptoms, you might even break out in a rash. And that isn’t what you want when you’re quaffing a glass of your favourite vino.
For allergen notifications, any wine containing over 10mg/litre of SO2 has to have the warning ‘contains sulphites’ declared on the label.
Low sulphur in wine
But before you go ahead and chalk up sulphur as the devil incarnate, know this, sulphur is actually a totally natural byproduct of the fermentation process.
Even if no sulphur is added at any point in the winemaking process, every wine will have it, even the low intervention ones, at the very least, trace quantities of the stuff, naturally. There truly isn’t such a thing as sulphur-free wine.
The closest you’ll get to sulphur-free wine is ‘naturally produced wine’, wine in its purest form. No additives, no preservatives, just naturally, fermented grape juice, made with as little human intervention as possible.
Natural wine is delicious, but if you’ve not tried it before, brace yourself, it might not be what you were expecting. It doesn’t always look (or taste) like conventional wine. In fact, the closest thing to describing natural wine would be akin to kombucha, a slightly soured, cloudy, fermented drink.
Where do you find natural wines? They are typically produced by small-batch wine producers, such as those that we champion here at Plonk.
The small-batch wine producers are the ones:
- Who care about their produce.
- Who take the time to handpick the grapes, to make sure that only the best, ripest grapes make it into the mix.
- Whose grapes will likely have been grown organically, sustainably or using biodynamics
- Whose grapes will have been crushed to release the juices and then nothing, we repeat nothing, will have been added to aid the fermentation process. No sugar, no yeast, nothing.
- Who rely on wild yeast to get the party started, not cultivated yeast. Wild yeast being the natural, native yeast that is found on the grapes’ skins and prevalent in the winemaker’s winery.
- Who try to refrain from using no or very little sulphur in their wines.
Pet Nat and low intervention wine
You might have heard of Pet Nat before, Pet Nat naturally has lower editions of sulphur. Pet Nat is short for Pétillant-Naturel, which basically means ‘naturally sparkling’, en Francais. Pet Nat wines finish the fermentation process in the bottle, meaning they’re lightly carbonated with a slight spritz when you pop the cork.
We have a few Pet Nats available via Plonk, such as Sklep58 Partyzán Petnat Müller Thurgau 2019 and Ca Di Rajo Lemoss NV.
Some other outstanding minimal sulphur wines you’ll find on Plonk include Domaine Jean-François Ganevat Trousseau Plein Sud 2018, Terrafusa Storta 2018 and Anne and Jean-François Ganevat Kopin Blanc 2017.