Almost every wine show, seminar or in general every time I speak to a group about wine, I get the now dreaded sulphite question. I have heard everything from “Sulphites give you headaches” to “Italian wine doesn’t have sulphites” and let me assure you, sulphites are probably not your headache problem, and Italian wine most definitely contains just as much sulphites as any other. So why is this such a hot topic? Over the past decade or perhaps a little shorter, the topic of sulphites in wine has grown in popularity for a number of reasons, and continues to be the subject of controversy. This has a lot to do with wine drinkers continuously trying to find a blame for the dreaded hangover (guess what, you drank too much!) and has also been the focus of the ever growing and prominent “Natural Wine” scene. To be clear, natural wine is a wine that has been made without the addition of sulphites, but not a wine that contains NO SULPHITES, as many people misquote.
So what the heck are we all talking about here? Well sulphites are naturally occurring during the winemaking process, and also an additive that acts as both an anti-bacterial and antioxidant. Why is that important? Well since there is the possibility for there to be bad bacteria in either the winery or the vineyard that can ruin your grapes, and/or wine, it is important to protect them throughout the process. And since oxygen can be wines best friend or much more commonly worst enemy, it is extremely important to protect it from the dreaded oxidation before necessary. So in short, sulphur dioxide is not just some additive that bulk production wineries throw at their wines in order to give you a headache, and has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the wine; in fact you would be hard pressed to find a common super-premium wine that does not have added sulphites.
Most wineries try to add as little SO2 (Sulphur Dioxide) as possible, even your big production wineries are not interested in loading their wines with un-needed doses of SO2. To give you an idea of how much SO2 is added to a wine during the winemaking process, I would say that a common range I have been made aware of is around 20-80mg per litre, so we are talking some very small amounts. So to answer the title question for this blog… YES! Sulphites are a big deal, just not the way you may have heard. Wineries need SO2 to insure that their wines are clean and fresh by the time they are released, and also so that you can hold on to that wine in your cellar while it continues to develop all of those beautiful nuances that come with gentle bottle age. I will not claim to know if they are the cause for your headache or hangover or if you are intolerant to them (Sigh…) but all of my research has pointed to that NOT being the case. When people drink, they are usually also not consuming water, therefore becoming dehydrated, a very common cause of headaches. It is also increasingly common to eat foods that you would not normally consume when you are drinking wine, and most common of all we have a bit more wine than we are willing to admit, almost always resulting in feeling a little less than 100% the next morning, I could go on but you get the idea. So my goal with this blog is to simply provide some accurate information on the purpose of adding SO2 to a wine, and allow you the reader, and consumer to make whatever conclusion you feel fits the information.
I would also like to make very clear that there are some absolutely stunning examples of wines made without the addition of SO2 (Look at the Loire Valley reds and Beaujolais to find a few) and are totally worth trying, but lets give Sulphites a break here, and not let that taint your opinion before you dive in and have a taste. Oh and one more thing! If you are reading this, PLEASE give your sommelier a break and don’t ask them about sulphites your next night out, they are probably a bit tired of answering questions of that nature. You will probably benefit much more asking them about the back story behind your wine choice, if you have a moment or two that is.
Connect with Characters Restaurant Below:
by: TJ Harstine Certified Sommelier