A lot of rubbish is talked about sulphites in wine. And there are a lot of misconceptions. I should say that my starting point in relation to sulphites is that it is a chemical additive, and I am fundamentally in favour of the most natural wine possible, with the minimum of chemicals. I positively seek out growers and winemakers to supply my shop who use minimum treatments.
The Romans discovered that if you burnt a sulphur candle in a used wine barrel it would disinfect it, and then they could reuse it without spoiling the wine. In about the fifteenth century, winemakers discovered that you could put sulphur into the wine itself, which would protect it against oxidation and bacterial spoilage. In other words, sulphur has both antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It also kills wild yeasts, which can impart peculiar, unpleasant flavours to wine.
The accepted practice since the Middle Ages has been to put sulphur (nowadays, in the form of a crystalline powder, potassium metabisulphite) into wine to protect it from spoilage. Recently, first the USA, in 1987, and subsequently the EU, introduced a requirement that wines should say on the label if sulphites are added. I have been selling wine for such a long time that I started to do so before the EU legislation came into force, and there has been a spectacularly sharp increase post-legislation in the number of people claiming to suffer from allergy to sulphites. It is certainly true that some people are sensitive to sulphites and react badly to them. However, sulphured foods are everywhere – dried fruit is routinely sulphured (and in much higher concentrations than in wine), so if you eat muesli for breakfast or fruit cake for tea you will be ingesting sulphur. If your breakfast or tea doesn’t make you ill, you almost certainly do not have a susceptibility to sulphur. The Allergy UK website lists 18 different categories of food and drink apart from beer, wine and cider which contain sulphites, including jam, tea, molasses and fresh or frozen prawns. The E numbers 220 to 228 inclusive are all compounds of sulphur, and there are a couple more as well. In addition, if you eat out in a restaurant, or buy a takeaway, there is no requirement for those establishments to state if any sulphites are contained in their food.
All wines contain sulphur in some form – it is a naturally occurring substance that is a component of all grapes, though in minimal quantities. And white wines generally contain higher levels of sulphites than red wines because they are more prone to oxidation in the winemaking process than red wines. Again, if you suffer a worse reaction to red wines than white wines, it is not the sulphur that is causing the trouble. Many people find that very rich, full-bodied wines – for example Australian Shiraz – give them headaches; here it is the colouring matter in the wines, not to mention the alcohol (such wines are high in alcohol), that is the cause of the problem; similarly with port – high extract, high alcohol, bad hangover. Quite seriously, people forget that alcohol gives you a headache – try drinking a bottle of vodka, for instance. In fact, the commonest reactions to sulphite sensitivity are wheezing, chest tightness and coughing.
I can remember trying a few years ago a sample bottle of a white wine which had no added sulphur. I opened the bottle, poured some out into my glass, and as I looked at the wine in the glass it began to change colour and turn brown. Within a few minutes it had turned into vinegar. I currently have a wine in my shop which comes from a winery where they take the whole subject of sulphuring very seriously; they also cultivate their vineyards according to organic principles. They put minimal quantities of sulphur into their wines. They do also make wine to which they add no sulphur. The agents in this country do not import the no-sulphur-added wine themselves (though it is available in this country via a different route), and the reason is that there is considerable variation from bottle – some good, some not so good. Unsulphured and very-low-sulphur wines tend to have an oxidised flavour (think of sherry) that does not appeal to many drinkers, who like their wines super-clean-tasting; if you like Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc, you probably won’t like most low sulphur wines.
There has been in recent times a campaign in the wine press against the excessive use of sulphur in winemaking. Coincidentally, there has been a big problem in Burgundy with white wines, often from grand estates, and with wines from their finest vineyards, where they maderise (go brown and become effectively undrinkable) after only a few years in bottle. Could this be as a result of the producers reducing their use of sulphur to a level where their wines become unstable? If a wine is noticeably sulphured, it can be decanted, allowed to breathe for a while and the sulphur smell will be dissipated. The wine will then be fine to drink.
Perhaps it might be better if a little more sulphur was used so that we could drink nicer wines.