The discussion about sulphite in wine rages fiercely these days, whatever term you choose. Natural wines made without sulphur, ‘Sulphur Free’ or preservative free wines just to name a few. And it is subject very misunderstood. More people are caring more about what goes into their wines other than just grapes.
How the wine you are drinking has been made is significant to the purchase decision for some. Whether the wine is from sustainable sources, and just what else other than grapes, has become important. Thankfully, since I last wrote about it in 2014, there are now many more options for wine drinkers who choose these wines.
I will leave the discussion of just how many people truly have reaction to Sulphur for another time. Sadly, most of us cannot blame a killer hangover on the preservatives in the wine. It is almost always the alcohol that causes that. However, it may just be the trigger of that asthma attack. As a fellow sufferer of a food allergy, I truly feel for those who have a sulphur allergy or intolerance.
As with any new style, there is a settling in period. This is the time winemakers grapple with the complexities and challenges making these types of wines bring. What is disturbing however, is that in the pursuit of clean living, are wine drinkers getting the quality of wine that they deserve?
What are sulphites in wine? Why is there sulphur in my wine anyway?
To preserve the freshness of wine and reduce the chances of spoilage winemakers will usually add a preservative. This may be before and after bottling, or both. Most likely a form of sulphur dioxide. Wines labelled as ‘Preservative Free’ or ‘Sulphur Free’ are often wines with ‘no added preservatives’. This is very important to understand as wines naturally contain a small amount of sulphur or sulphites. Or ‘sans soufre’ in French and ‘senza zolfo’ in Italian.
A sulphite is quite simply a sulphur based chemical and are frequently used in wine and other foods.
If a winemaker chooses not to use sulphur, their grapes must be pristine in condition and they then must be absolutely, unforgivingly scrupulous in maintaining the hygiene in their winemaking processes.
The best preservative free winemakers have been making their wines sulphur free for many years. I have noticed however, that some who declare themselves completely preservative free, tend to have some whites and sparkling wines listed as ‘low preservative’. Is this an indication that in some varieties and styles, even the most experienced winemakers are really not able to attain consistently high quality results?
Sulphur dioxide is also used to kill off yeast strains that are unwanted. The winemaker will then introduce their specifically chosen strain gets on with its job unhindered.
The sulphur (sulphite) used in wine
The choice of how much to add is up to the winemaker. Albeit, there is usually a maximum allowable amount which depends on the country, type of wine and sometimes whether the wine is certified organic or biodynamic. Red wines have the advantage of having built in preservatives. That is the antioxidant compounds (such as resveratrol) and tannins extracted from the skins in the wine making process.
Consequently, if sulphur is used, red wines may have less sulphur than white wines. If there has been no added sulphur, the red wines may retain their freshness longer .
How much sulphur (sulphite) is used in wine?
Dioxide can be added either as a pure gas of Sulphur Dioxide (preservative 220) or as a powder in the form of Potassium metabisulfite (preservative 224). Most often it is the powdered form that is used. For example, there is a maximum allowable limit under the Australian Food Standards Code (Standard 4.5.1). This is 250 mg/L total in wines containing less than 35g/L of sugar. This rises to 300 mg/L in wines with over 35 g/L in sugar content. In Champagne, the maximum allowable amount is 150 mg/L. As a comparison, dried apricots may contain up to 3000 ppm (or mg/L).
Certified organic and biodynamic producers in Australia may still add sulphur, albeit up to the lesser amount of 120mg/L in total, to their wines. However, the reality is that often winemakers are adding much less than the 250 mg/L maximum. Sometimes, even less the 120 mg/L for certified producers.
EU regulations are that in sweet wines there can be 400 mg/L. In dry wines it is 200mg/L for white and for reds, 150 mg/L.
A ‘no added sulphur’ wine will have minute amounts which may even be more than EU threshold of 10 mg/L. You cannot completely remove sulphite in wine. At this level the EU considers the wine to be ‘free of Sulphur’.
Tip: Cask wines will often have greater levels of Sulphur that bottle wines.
Will I notice any difference if there is no sulphite in the wine? Are the wines made without sulphur just as good?
Some advocates of zero sulphur are convinced that the wine will display its true character. Many winemakers use low sulphur regimes but do not advertise the fact on the bottle. This means there are many more ‘low preservative’ wines out there than you might expect. Not just those making natural wines.
Some wines will have a ‘funkiness’ that is hard to describe. As a drinker, be assured that if you do NOT like these characters, then don’t be convinced that you should. If you find the wine unpleasant, then your journey with this wine is obviously very different to the person trying to convince you.
There will always be someone there to zealously tell you that the wine is supposed to be this way. And if you don’t enjoy the wine, it will leave you feeling like you are standing watching the happy summer party boat float away without you…..
Or, as I call it …. the Emperor’s-new-clothes wine moment. You get my point….
The best, however, will be wines that you will enjoy.
They will have texture and complexity and will still retain a clean freshness. And the good news is that as more of these wines become available, the consistency in quality will continue to improve. The best producers that I have found are those who have a history of lowering their sulphur use before they made the final leap to apply the technique to more of their range. And then subsequently had plenty of experience of making preservative free wines.
It is often easier to find good quality in the preservative free red wine selection. However, I have tasted a tasty French rosé from Mas Janeil. It is one that would not stand out as different in a line up of modern rosé wines. One contains both with and without a sulphite.
Therefore, my recommendation to you is to make sure you do a bit of research. On both the wine and its maker if you are not sure. Some of these wines can be on the expensive side, especially Champagne.
A word of warning about wines without sulphites….
Faults in Sulphur-free – the dreaded mouse and others!
The potential for the natural wines made without sulphur in your glass to have a fault that will seriously detract from your enjoyment of that wine is significantly increased when purchasing a ‘preservative free’ wine compared to a wine made with preservatives. Faults may include the wine being oxidised fully or maybe just enough to simply be just bordering on unpleasant. Or might have other winemaking issues coming from poor winemaking practices or poor conditions.
One major issue that I have picked up lately is a significant lactic acid bacteria issue in sulphur free Champagne of which I have tasted a few over the past 12 months. Some strains of this bacteria can produce a flavour that is feral. ‘Mousy’, like a dead mouse. There is no aroma to warn you… sadly, as the assault on my mouth is intense. It is a fault that reacts with the saliva in your mouth and appears when your mouth is empty of wine.
This issue with this strain of lactic acid bacteria is just one of the issues that is very easily controlled using a type of sulphite in the wine. It is very sensitive to sulphur.
Now, admittedly, I must genetically have a very low sensory tolerance for this bacteria. I say this because when I mention it, I get very blank and unbelieving looks and comments, not because I have had this tested in any sensory research. I have found out though, that this fault is one that is genetically selective in its degree of exposure.
So, I guess I am just lucky!
Want more? ….
A good source of information on the faults in wine is the Australian Wine Research Institute(AWRI) which I refer to often after doing a course and a few masterclasses with them over the past decade.
Here are some recommendations for winemakers making natural wines made without sulphur, or who use low sulphite in their wine and I will continue to add to this list as I taste more that I would recommend:
Australia: Look out for wines from
Temple Bruer who has always impressed me with high quality wines.
Larry Cherubino’s Laissez Faire wines have no sulphur added until bottling and then minimal.
Yangarra and Battle of Bosworth both make shiraz that are good drinking.
This article was first published 15th June 2019. It was updated November 2023.