Wines not bottled at source have a bit of a bad reputation for many people, and it seems the main reason is the lack of guarantee of origin and quality, something that is supposedly conferred by the producer’s bottle and label.
A moment’s thought however reveals that any guarantee is far from absolute. Bottles and labels can be faked, and they offer no protection from rogue producers. Also, wine can now be transported efficiently and safely in bulk, with traceability afforded by documentation and information technology.
The guarantee is really only required when there are significant distances between production and consumption – in wine-producing regions empty containers are often taken to a nearby producer for refill. The locals are of course in a great position to know the seller’s reputation, and may even make wine themselves.
As far as small producers are concerned, selling to locals is one thing, but bottling their wine is often the key to getting better prices from large cities, and possibly other countries. And once in a bottle with a label, wine can take a very different position in society. It is no longer a lightly processed agricultural product, only of local significance, but an international lifestyle product. The larger and cheaper brands are designed for the mass market, while more expensive wines available in smaller quantities become desirable luxury goods. At the luxury end of the market, connoisseurship is enabled by bottles and labels. They allow critics to write about a particular wine and vintage, and punters that are possibly in another part of the world can then buy what purports to be the same wine. Even if it is common knowledge that wine can vary considerably between bottles of the same lot, particularly for older vintages, somehow that variation is conveniently forgotten by connoisseurs when obsessing over wine. Thus, labels change how the product is regarded, and they can so easily mislead.
The culture surrounding natural wines largely ignores conventional wine connoisseurship, and I think in many ways would be more at home with the idea of bulk wine – something meant to be quaffed rather than sipped. Is not bottling one of the most unnatural things you can do to a wine? Even if you leave out the preliminary steps of fining, filtering and dosing with sulphites, squeezing wine into a closed space with little oxygen cramps its style. However, bottling is important to reach the more lucrative market city markets and their natural wine bars. Best not use a traditional wine label though – rather get a mate to design something funky and rebellious, so those connoisseur types know to stay away.
There are comparisons to be drawn here between en rama Sherries and natural wines. Strictly speaking an en rama Sherry is taken directly from a solera cask, and valued for its fresh and lively character. Which is all very well if you have access to casks in a Sherry bodega, but not so handy if you live in another country. So Sherry houses now offer the en rama experience oxymoronically from a bottle, where its contents have only minimal processing – perhaps a little fining, only coarse filtration, and minimal sulphite usage. And in doing so, unlike many natural wine producers, it seems they have a product with connoisseur-appeal.
If only for environmental reasons, we need to explore alternatives to bottling wine at source, even if there are huge image problems to overcome for most customers. The romance of drinking unbottled wine in situ might, just might, be a starting point to convince some people. It would work for me, but then I am a far-from-typical wine drinker.
The Wines of Georgia by Lisa Granik MW, is published by Infinite Ideas in the Classic Wine Library series, with a recommended price of £30. I couldn’t find it cheaper at the usual discounting online booksellers, but it is worth googling for a discount code to buy directly from the publishers. As I write, there are substantial reductions available for WSET, MW and CMS students and/or alumni. By way of disclosure, I should point out that I was given a review copy.
In broad terms, the organisation follows the pattern of many wine books whose topic is a country or major region. Firstly there is background information, separated into chapters on geology, history, wine culture, and a rather large one on local grape varieties. Then, apart from some closing thoughts, each subsequent chapter takes a Georgian region as its subject. The size of each region’s chapter reflects the extent of its winemaking activity, so the Kakheti chapter is another large one, as Kakheti is responsible for the majority of wine production in the country.
My second reviewer disclosure is to declare how much of the book I actually read. Most background chapters were read carefully, but I skipped through the grape variety and regional chapters to get a general impression, pausing only to read in more detail where I was more familiar with the subject matter, or where something in particular otherwise caught my attention. I suspect this reading pattern would not be untypical, as the later chapters would be heavy-going if read in a linear fashion, and are a lot more suited for reference material.
My general impression is that the book is well-researched and detailed. Not only has Lisa travelled extensively in the country, but she has consulted organisational authorities, and read in some depth on the subjects she writes about. Thus for example, she avoids the retelling of Georgian history according to folk memory, and offers a more nuanced interpretation of Georgia’s Soviet period. There are but a handful of comments in the text that I find questionable, but they could be largely put down to emphasis and interpretation, and are certainly not significant enough to merit analysis here.
The tone is generally formal and serious, so you have to be on your guard or you will miss the occasional flashes of dry humour. One consequence of this tone is that Georgia’s romance is downplayed, along with its people, food and countryside. But that’s fair enough, the main topic after all is wine, and a single book cannot be expected to cover everything.
The regional chapters, which comprise around half the book, are packed with solid and interesting information. However, they might be easier to navigate if more structure were imposed on them. Thus, while they contained solid information on the geography, geology, PDOs, and producers, it was not always obvious where to find it. If structure does exist in the regional chapters, then it is perhaps more a criticism of the publisher’s layout and typography than the author. A finer level of detail in the table of contents would have helped, as would a better index. For example if you want to know about Kindzmarauli, a word you may find on a Georgian wine label, it does not have its own top level index entry; you have to know to look under Protected Designations of Origin, and then Kakheti.
Better maps would also have helped in some of the explanations in the regional chapters. Map quality in wine books is a constant complaint of mine, and actually the ones in this book are better than most. It is really only the Upper Kakheti map that attempts to cram in far too much information – but this is sadly the one that covers most of the country’s wine production.
On the positive side, I was very pleasantly surprised to see what I thought was a very balanced approach in any discussion of homemade and natural wines. This subject is usually divisive, and while a fair amount of writing on Georgian wine has come from cheerleaders of the natural wine movement, MWs seem to often adopt the opposite, very disdainful, stance. The cheerleaders may make my eyes roll, but it the disdain irritates me more. Anyway, I finished up unirritated, with eyeballs intact, and just a little curious as to exactly where Lisa draws the line between faultiness and acceptability in natural wines.
The blurb on the back cover claims that this is the definitive book on Georgian wine. I am not sure I agree, if only because I am not sure a definitive book can exist for a subject matter that is changing so rapidly. But I would go so far as to say it is the best book to date, without a shadow of a doubt. So if you want to learn about Georgian wine, this should be your first port of call.
The theme that determined the look of my blog a few moments ago was 10 years old, and deemed to be obsolescent by various 3rd parties. Hence, I was pushed very much towards an update of my website’s appearance, and I have a new theme. It is now Responsive, which is considered to be a Good Thing – not least by Google apparently when it calculates the weightings to use for page rankings. Personally, on smaller devices I think it now looks a lot better than it used to, but worse on laptop and desktop machines. That’s progress.
Anyway, I know there are a few niggles with some older posts, but otherwise everything seems to be working. However, if you notice any problems please do let me know. Meanwhile, I’ll try to get working on new content.
In the past I have sensed that some people assume I only write reviews of wines I would unconditionally recommend. But that is not the case, so please read on – it’s not a long blog post.
I recently noticed a few recommendations for Toro Loco wines at Aldi, and as my local store had a couple of their shelves, I thought it would be interesting to compare them side-by-side. Both were initially tasted, and drunk with food, at a middle-eastern BYO restaurant. Here are my tasting notes…
Superior 12.5% 2018 £4.00
(Tempranillo and Bobal)
Medium ruby. Thin, austere fruit. Cherry. Medium acid. Medium low tannin. Drink now **
Orgánico 12.5% 2018 £5.00 (70% Bobal, 20% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon)
Medium ruby. Tad more purple. Dark fruit. More full and soft. Cherry again. Medium acid. Medium tannin. Drink now. A good solid ***
Firstly – kudos to Aldi for stocking wines from the little known Utiel-Requena region near Valencia, and with the little known Bobal grape as a major component. Bobal has a reputation for being a rustic variety but, as is so often the case, if it respected with careful winemaking it can deliver characterful and high quality wines.
To be frank, I would question the quality of the first of these wines, and neither would be my first choice if I wanted a crowd-pleasing fruity red wine, but with food their character made them a pleasant alternative to those crowd-pleasers. The Orgánico was a much better wine all-round when viewed critically, and well worth a fiver, but for quaffing with food the so-called Superior worked too. Feint praise perhaps, but I think I am being fair.
If you are tempted to try Bobal at a more serious level, I would suggest Aranleón Sólo (£9 at The Wine Society), or Cien y Pico En Vaso (available at a few places for a similar price). Some might find these wines a little challenging – dark, heavy and tannic – but if you occasionally like that sort of thing they will not disappoint.
On the afternoon before a Château Ksara wine-trade dinner at Comptoir Libanais, I was invited by Rachel Davey to drop by at the same venue to taste some Ksara wine. There I had the pleasure of meeting George Sara, co-owner and board member of Ksara, and Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon, and enthusiastic champion of Lebanese wine. George (leftmost in the image) very clearly, yet with a soft touch, communicated his pride in what Ksara had to offer, while Michael enthusiastically contributed with a broad range of views, opinions and insights into Lebanon and its wines, from the very general, to the specific wines we had in front of us.
Château Ksara is the oldest and largest winery in Lebanon. It dates back to 1857, when Jesuit monks inherited some land and started to farm it. In the 1860s the monks made their first dry red wines there; prior to that it was only sweet wine for sacramental purposes. Under the Jesuits, the business grew to the point where it was producing the vast majority of Lebanese wine, and in 1973 Ksara was sold to a consortium of Lebanese investors lead by Jean-Pierre Sara. The winery lies in the Bekaa Valley, which is more of a mountain plateau than what most of us would think of as a valley, and the grapes for most wines (with one exception, mentioned below) also come from the Bekaa Valley region.
I describe the wines below in groupings suggested by George after the tasting, disregarding the order in which they were actually tasted which followed the usual progression of white wines, through rosé, to red. The prices are rough UK retail prices gleaned from Wine-Searcher, but I was unaware of the prices when tasting and making notes.
Lebanese heritage wines
These are all made from varieties that have been in Lebanon for a long time. Not all of them are native to the country but, if not native, they have most definitely been adopted by the country, and can produce wines that are distinctively Lebanese.
Blanc de l’Observatoire, 2018, 13.0%, £12 Obeidy 30%, Muscat 30%, Clairette 30%, Sauvignon 10%.
Fresh. Citrus and apple. High acidity. Dry. Aromatic. Drink now ****
Merwah, 2018, 12.5%, £15
There is no other varietal Merwah wine in commercial production, and 2018 is only its second vintage, and the first one to be imported into the UK. The 60-year-old low-yield vines are grown on the slopes above Douma in north Lebanon (not the Bekaa Valley) at an altitude of over 1,500m. The grapes are hand-harvested, and the wine is made with low intervention techniques.
Complex nose. Citrus, violets, biscuity. Medium-high acidity. Dry. Drink now *****
According to Michael, DNA analysis has shown that the Obeidy variety used in the Blanc de l’Observatoire is not, as thought by some, the same as Chardonnay, or any other grape. However, tests on Merwah to confirm or deny its identity with Semillon are still ongoing. For what it is worth, I recognised a fleeting aroma on the Merwah that I find quite distinctive and have before found only on Semillon wines. I can best describe it as Nez du Vin – the smell you get when you open the box of a Nez du Vin kit. What more proof does one need?
Edit 06/11/19: On the jancisrobinson.com forum José Vouillamoz has just confirmed that he has DNA-profiled samples of Merwah, as well as Obaideh (AKA Obeidy), and that neither is identical to any other known variety. However, studies are ongoing, and nothing is officially published yet.
One more comment on the Merwah, which occurred to me only after the tasting: why is it bottled in clear glass? There seems to be an increasing awareness of lightstrike faults and, even if the wine has been kept in the dark, the clear glass bottle will be sounding alarm bells for some consumers. Is the wine’s colour really such a strong selling point, as it is supposed to be for rosé wines?
Gris de Gris, 2018, £13
Carignan and Grenache Gris.
Pale salmon. Strawberry. And something else a bit more punchy – spice or rubber? Medium acidity. Drink now ***
I wasn’t too keen on the Gris de Gris, and rosé is not my favourite style anyway, but George persuaded me to try some with a mouthful of Fattoush. I must admit it seemed to improve the wine for whatever reason. As with all the wines, I find it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions after only a brief taste.
Le Prieuré, 2017, 13.5%, £12
Cinsault and Carignan, with some Grenache and Mourvedre. Fermented in concrete tanks that were installed at the time the monks ran the winery.
Medium pale violet. Soft berry fruit reminiscent of Beaujolais. Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency. Drink now *****
Michael enthused about Le Prieuré being the taste of the Bekaa valley. So if you’ve ever wondered about typicity for Bekka Valley wines, you could do worse than try some of this.
Lebanon meets Bordeaux
In these wines we have a nod towards Bordeaux, but the wines are not intended to be imitations, and include non-Bordeaux grape varieties.
Blanc de Blancs, 2018, 13.0%, £13 Sauvignon 55%, Semillon 25%, Chardonnay 20%.
Refreshing. Medium-high acidity. Reminded me very much of white Bordeaux.
Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent, 2016, 13.5%, £13.00
Syrah 40%, Cabernet Franc 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%. Oak-aged for 12 months.
Medium purple. Seemed to have some of the same quality of fruit as Le Prieuré, but with spice, and a bigger tannin kick on the palate. Medium-high acidity. Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent is Ksara’s flagship wine, and a bestseller in Lebanon. I thought it was good now, but was told it should keep 5-10 years
French-style from Lebanon
These wines are intended to be true to their French originals of White Burgundy and Claret.
Chardonnay, Cuvée du Pape, 2017, £20 Aged in oak barrels.
Medium pale gold. Medium acid. Oak. I could easily believe this was a white Burgundy. Drink now *****
Château, 2016, 13.5%, £21
Veilles vignes. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. 12 months ageing in oak, old and new in equal parts.
Medium pale purple. Dark berry fruit. Pencil box. Medium acidity. High tannin. Good fruit and spice. Needs more time. Was told would keep 10-20 years *****
While I have tasted quite a wide range of Lebanese wine in the past, for some reason the only Ksara wine I had tried prior to this tasting was the Reserve du Couvent, so I was pleased to get to know Ksara better. Overall it was a good and varied set of wines, and all were showing well. I see I gave most of them very good star ratings and wonder, as I often do, if I was not over-generous. However, they fairly represented my subjective opinion at the time, so I will not go back to adjust the ratings.
And generally the wines were very reasonably priced too in my opinion. However, while the Chardonnay Cuvée du Pape and Château wines may have been fairly priced, I am not sure what they offered that could not be bought from Bordeaux or Burgundy for similar money or less. George commented that Ksara’s cheaper wines tended to sell best to export markets, which I think will continue to be the case, while the more prestigious French variety wines were more favoured in Lebanon.
I really must try to revisit some of these wines to gain a better appreciation, but from my exposure to them so far I think the Merwah was the most interesting and attractive white, while the Reserve du Couvent was my favourite red, for being a good all-round solid performer.
Over the last few weeks I published a mini-series of posts on sulphites in wine, trying to go into a bit more depth than is usually found, and referring to my evidence base where possible. It is also perhaps a bit technical in places, but I hope it strikes the right balance at least for some winelovers.
The main thread of the posts starts with introductory material, including sulphite allergies, and a bit about typical sulphite concentrations, and limits specified by the various regulatory bodies. Then, after brief discussion of sulphite-induced headaches, which I see as a bit of a side-issue, I move on to the effect of sulphites on flavour. My posts are linked to below:
I must admit that when I started writing about sulphites, my view was that the issue was quite cut-and-dried, and they got far too much attention in the wine-world. I now see that sulphites are a lot more important than I thought, and not only for wine-preservation and health reasons. The extent to which sulphites are good or bad is now not entirely clear to me, but I am convinced that sulphite-usage decisions are not to be taken lightly.
Health-effects aside, most people seem to regard the primary function of sulphites to be the prevention of spoilage. It kills off bacteria and yeasts that can create nasty off-flavours, and works against oxidation, allowing the supposedly unsullied essential wine characteristics to shine through. And many people who object to the use of sulphites think and argue in the same arena, saying that the off-flavours add interest and character. However, it is true that some also praise the clarity and brightness of fruit flavours in natural wine. Terroir is mustered by both pro- and anti-sulphite factions to serve their separate causes: either saying the faults resulting from insufficient sulphur mask terroir, or that those qualities are actually a reflection of terroir, because the microorganisms that cause them are an essential component of it.
What is often common to both sides of the argument is a general failure, beyond the mere existence or absence of faults, to recognise the far-reaching consequences of sulphites on the organoleptic properties of wine. This point was clearly made in a recent SevenFifty Daily article, How Sulfites Affect a Wine’s Chemistry, which I make no apology for summarising below. I encourage you to read the whole article for further details and references.
There is a lot we still don’t know about how sulphites impact on wine chemistry, but research is starting to show that they affect a large number of chemical components in wine, and its organoleptic properties. Notably, sulphites act with oxygen and acetaldehyde to affect colour and mouthfeel, and aromatic compounds are also altered significantly. For example, a Sauvignon Blanc made reductively with sulphites in stainless steel tanks has a very different aromatic profile to one made in barrels with no sulphite additions. The effects are not only wide-ranging, but long-lasting. Research with Chardonnay shows that differing amounts of sulphite cause differences in the finished wine, even after several years of bottle age
Sulphite additions early in the winemaking process are particularly important. You either allow oxidative processes at that stage by not using sulphites, or must commit to fighting oxidation with sulphites throughout the winemaking process. Counterintuitively, winemaker experiments in vinifying with and without sulphites have shown that the “without” wines tend to have better long-term resistance to oxygen. They also tend to taste older when young, but show freshness of fruit as they get older, also exhibiting softer tannins, lighter colour, and more floral notes. On the other hand, reductive notes (not necessarily a bad thing) and cassis are more likely to be associated with sulphite additions.
The author of the SevenFifty Daily article seems to argue for the pragmatic approach of letting science decide how sulphites are to be used, with the goal of creating a stable wine that has the organoleptic properties intended by the winemaker. I certainly have some sympathy with that view, but on the other hand I also fully appreciate the ideological stance that added sulphites simply do not belong in wines. Should we use them simply because they are perceived by some to be beneficial? And if so, what other additions should be permitted on the same basis?
Irrespective of what we think, the presence or absence of sulphites in wine is an undeniably important issue – it affects stability in complex ways, and sulphites are a dangerous allergen for some – but also, as is becoming increasingly clear, its effect on flavour and mouthfeel can be profound, and cannot be ignored.
Before I get back to posting more techy-stuff about sulphites in wine, here’s a brief diversion into the question of whether sulphites in wine can cause headaches.
Two things are clear. One is that, as far as I know, there is no scientific evidence that they do – we know that sulphites may result in a number of various symptoms in a small section of the population, but headaches is not one of them. The second is, despite that, quite a few people do believe that sulphites cause headaches, and have anecdotal evidence to support their belief. And of course a lack of scientific evidence for a proposition does not mean it is wrong.
The main problem with the anecdotal evidence is that wine contains another chemical, one that we know for sure causes headaches: alcohol. And there are also other chemicals that could conceivably do the same. So if you suffer from wine-related headaches how might you attempt to identify what is the culprit?
An easy first step would be to establish which wines are more likely to give you the worst headaches. Are sweet ones the worst? Followed by dry whites, and with red wines least likely to give you headaches? If so, that pattern is consistent with sulphites being to blame, because sweet wines are likely to contain more sulphites than dry ones, and white wines more than reds. On the other hand, if red wines are the worst, then it is more likely to be due to a chemical extracted from grape skins. A possible culprit is histamine – you could test for that by seeing if an antihistamine helps (but do check first that it is OK to consume alcohol with the drug). Or of course red wines might be giving you more headaches simply because they tend to contain more alcohol.
You could also compare your normal wines with ones that have particularly low sulphite levels. Generally speaking, a better quality wine, or something natural, biodynamic or natural, will be likely to have lower sulphite levels. But to be sure that you are comparing with a low sulphite wine you could go to the Raw Wine website and search for wines with levels under, say, 20 ppm. If lower sulphite wines give you fewer headaches it may still not be the sulphites themselves that are making the difference, as wines with low sulphite levels are probably low on other additives too. But on the other hand, if you like the low sulphite wine you might consider your problem solved anyway, so who cares?
Another approach would be to note if other sulphite-containing food and drink gives you headaches. Bright orange dried apricots are said to contain up to 1,000 ppm of sulphites. That’s a lot more than would be allowed in any wine, though to be fair you are likely to consume more wine in one session than apricots. Here’s a list I found of food and drink containing more than 100 ppm sulphites:
Dried fruits (excluding dark raisins and prunes)
Bottled lemon juice (non-frozen)
Bottled lime juice (non-frozen)
Sauerkraut (and its juice)
Grape juices (white, white sparkling, pink sparkling, red sparkling)
Pickled cocktail onions
I feel a bit ill reading that list, but if you can pig-out on dried apricots, molasses, sauerkraut (and its juice) and pickled onions without getting a headache, probably sulphites are not responsible for your hangovers.
All the above suggestions are as unscientific as any assertion that sulphites cause headaches. The best they can achieve is to give you a little more understanding of how you personally react to sulphite additives, and I’m afraid that’s the best I can offer.
In pretty much all wine-producing countries, there are regulations to limit the sulphite content of wine. The limits are always expressed nominally in terms of total sulphur dioxide, but I suspect they all assume an analysis method that fails to account for some of the bound sulphur dioxide, as discussed in my previous post.
If you feel motivated to check these various EU limits or get more details, the table provides you with the relevant document numbers, which can be found by a web search. But it is not a task to be tackled lightly – I once set out to extract the various sulphite limits from the 1999 regulations and nearly lost the will to live.
The US regulations on the other hand have the advantage of simplicity: for wines with no organic-credentials the limit is 350 ppm (or mg/l – the units are practically identical). That figure is widely quoted, but I am afraid I have not been able to track down the actual regulatory document. I had more success with finding an authoritative-looking document for organic wines in the USA: Organic Wine: Oversight, Labeling & Trade. That document covers two categories: wine made with organic grapes and organic wine, where organic wine has stricter rules. For organic wine, added sulphites are not allowed at all – though the wine will still contain naturally occurring sulphites, and probably need a sulphites warning on the label, as discussed in my previous post. However, for wine made with organic grapes sulphite additions are allowed, providing there is no more than 100 ppm sulphur dioxide in the finished wine. In the EU by the way, wine made with organic grapes is not a special category: the grapes must be farmed organically as claimed, but all winemaking regulations are as for conventional wines in the above table.
For allowable sulphite levels in other countries, The Oxford Companion to Wine reads: “In South Africa, the limit is 150 mg/l for dry reds, 160 mg/l for dry white, rosé, and sparkling, and between 200 and 300 mg/l for sweet wines depending on style and level of sweetness. Argentina: 130 mg/l for dry reds, 180 mg/l for dry white and rosé wines and sweet reds, 210 mg/l for sweet white and rosé. Chile: 300 mg/l for all dry wines and 400 mg/l for sweet wines.”
As far as biodynamic wine is concerned, Demeter certifies it internationally, and their document Standards for Demeter/Biodynamic Wine regulates the use of sulphites. The stated aim is that sulphur dioxide be restricted to the absolute minimum, but then the document proceeds to specify limits that are more lax than the US organic regulations. For different types of wine, the maximum allowable total sulphur dioxide at bottling in mg/l is:
But what about so-called natural wines? As you probably know there is no official definition or certifying body, but we can take a look at the list of wines made by the accredited growers and makers of Raw Wine – Isabel Legeron’s platform for the promotion of natural wines. By searching the list using filters provided on the website, it is possible to get a feeling for sulphite levels in wines deemed to be natural. The database also records which wines have added sulphites, but sadly you cannot use that as a search criterion. Here are the results of a search on 6th June 2019:
Total sulphur dioxide (ppm)
Number of wines
I think some of the quoted sulphur dioxide analysis results in this table need to be taken with a pinch of salt. For example, when you look at the data in more detail it is obvious that some testing laboratories round the concentrations to the nearest integer multiple of 5 or 10 ppm. Note also the high number of wines with precisely zero sulphites, despite it being commonly stated that fermentation necessarily creates sulphites in all wines. I have seen 10 ppm referred to as a detectable level, implying that measuring anything less than that is problematic, so perhaps that explains all the wines at 0 ppm? But regardless of such quibbling, I think we can conclude from the table that most natural wines contain less than 40 ppm, and that there are fewer and fewer natural wines at levels increasing from 40 to 70 ppm.
So now we know some the sulphite concentrations in some natural wines, thanks largely to sulphites being one of the obsessions of the natural wine community, but getting sulphite concentrations for wines in general seems to be more difficult. The assumption is often that the makers of cheap wines zap their wines with as much sulphite as they can get away with, to compensate for poor fruit quality, and for closer control of the winemaking process to create a consistent product that meets an expected flavour profile. On the other hand, higher quality producers are expected use less sulphites, as they take more care to select healthy fruit, are willing to put more effort into low-intervention winemaking, and are also more tolerant of variation in the end product. I personally think there must be some truth in that characterisation, but sadly cannot demonstrate it with numbers. More certainly, it is the case that red wines need less added sulphites than white, because the tannin in red wines will also provide protection against oxidation, and sweeter wines will tend to need more added sulphites, because the sugar binds sulphur dioxide, rendering it a lot less effective.
To get some feeling for typical sulphite concentrations in wines that are not claimed to be natural, I think we could do a lot worse than look at the maximums in the first table of this post. EU regulations are typically designed to reflect existing practice rather than to effect change, so I think it is reasonable to assume that most wines have sulphite levels approaching, but comfortably within, the specified limits for the different styles of wine. On the other hand, producers who particularly favour low-intervention methods (even if they do not identify with the natural wine movement) would be closer to around 30 ppm, and other high-quality wines would have intermediate concentrations.
So what are we to make of all this? To be honest I am not at all sure. One might hope that maximum sulphite levels were specified according to some sort of objective assessment of health risk, but I am not convinced we know enough about sulphite allergies to do that – there is not even agreement about what proportion of people are affected by sulphites (as mentioned in my previous post). So what we have are rules based on a mish-mash of current practice and ideology. In my opinion, the best that can be said for the current situation is that consumers can exercise a degree of choice about their exposure to sulphites – based on their world-view and how they personally perceive health risks.
I studied a bit of chemistry at university so I know what a sulphite is, I thought. It’s an ion that has a single sulphur atom, three oxygens and a double negative charge. And I most definitely would not make the common error of confusing sulphite with sulphate, which is spelled with an a rather than an i, and has four oxygen atoms – a totally different beast.
The usual story with sulphites is that they are added to wine to work against oxidation, and kill yeast and bacteria, but the downside is that some people are allergic to them, and in the US and EU they require a warning label if present at 10 ppm (parts per million – very similar to mg/l) or more. They are also anecdotally associated with headaches, and thought by some to be a Bad Thing simply because they are not Natural. However, at the next level of sophistication you might also be aware that some sulphite content actually is natural, as it is a fermentation product, and thus present in every wine even if not added artificially.
So far so good, but when you start poking around a bit more, asking what sulphite concentrations actually mean, and how many of us are allergic to sulphites, it suddenly gets rather more murky. What people call sulphites are not necessarily the sulphites a chemistry undergraduate is confident about, and it is not clear precisely what people are allergic to. I don’t claim to have a complete overview of all these issues, but will try here to clarify what I can.
Let me start by talking through some of the points made on Ben Rotter’s excellent webpage on sulphur dioxide. Sulphur dioxide can be introduced into wine using any of a number of approved additives but, regardless of which one is used, the same set of sulphur-related entities will result:
Sulphur dioxide – gas molecules in solutions
Sulphite ions – as described at the start of this post
Bisulphite ions – like sulphite but with a hydrogen, and less charge
Unstable compounds – formed by bonding with various other chemicals
Stable compounds – notably the product of reacting with acetaldehyde
Even though only number 1 in the list is actually sulphur dioxide, 1-3 are often referred to as free sulphur dioxide, and 4 and 5 as bound sulphur dioxide. The total sulphur dioxide includes both the free and the bound forms. Any protective properties are largely lost in the bound forms, with free sulphur dioxide doing the vast majority of the good work. In fact, it is the molecular sulphur dioxide that is most effective form but, depending on the pH, there may not be much of it present as a fraction of the total.
You may have noticed that from talking about sulphites we quietly slid into the subject of sulphur dioxide. You will find that is quite common in discussions of this subject, and the two are often seen as being practically synonymous. It does not help that when someone says sulphur dioxide they could be referring to
Actual sulphur dioxide molecules,
Free sulphur dioxide,
Bound sulphur dioxide (unlikely perhaps),
Total sulphur dioxide
In fact you could add a fifth, which is the sulphur dioxide measured by a specific procedure. More on this later, but let’s first take a look at sulphur compound allergies.
The first point to make on the subject of allergies is that people can have adverse reactions to several different sulphur compounds, and just because you have problems with one does not mean you need to avoid contact with all of them. In the food and drink industry it is common to talk about adding sulphites, and the product as containing sulphites. Accordingly, from a medical point of view, what is of interest to us here is usually referred to as a sulphite allergy or intolerance, as it is a reaction to food or drink that contains these sulphites. Also, my impression is that people take the practical view that all sulphited products finish up containing the same range of chemicals, as listed above, and do not bother to distinguish between the individual chemicals when gathering data about allergies.
There are many possible reactions to sulphites, both true allergies (due to an over-sensitive immune response) and other intolerances. The most severe response is anaphylaxis, which is rare but very serious and possibly lethal, while the most common is the worsening of any asthma symptoms, also potentially lethal in some cases. Other less serious possible reactions are hives and allergic rhinitis. But as far as I know there is no hard evidence that sulphites cause headaches. Estimates of the numbers of people affected by adverse reactions vary a lot. One estimate is that 1% of the population is affected, of which 5% also suffer from asthma; while another source says 5% of asthmatics are sensitive to sulphites, compared with 1% of the rest of the populations; and a third source claims that in America less than 0.05% of the whole population is affected.
Speaking of inconsistency in terminology, you might also note that although food scientists and medical people tend to talk about sulphites, and the warning text on wine labels reads “contains sulphites”, the threshold level for warnings is defined in terms of total sulphur dioxide content, a label warning being required for 10 ppm or more. In fact a specific procedure (or one that gives similar results) is mandated for measuring sulphur dioxide: the optimised Monier-Williams distillation-titration procedure.
Looking at methods similar to optimised Monier-Williams (here and here), it seems that the first step is to acidify, which converts all the free sulphur dioxide, and also a fixed proportion of bound sulphur dioxide, to the molecular form of sulphur dioxide, and then the sulphur dioxide gas content is measured. So it seems likely that the concentration levels determined for comparison with the 10 ppm limit, are expressed in terms of molecular sulphur dioxide gas, rather than the ionic forms. Another conclusion is that, as not all the bound sulphur dioxide is converted to the molecular form for measurement, the procedure will not actually give the true total sulphur dioxide content – it will be somewhat less, but greater than the amount of free sulphur dioxide.
Why is the limit set to 10 ppm? I could not find a definitive answer, but 10 ppm is referred to as being a detectable amount, so it seems that it is linked to the practicalities of measurement, rather than the level at which some people might react badly. As the mandated procedure under-measures, it would anyway seem silly to start fretting too much about the science behind the limit of 10 ppm. Perhaps the best that can be said about the regulations is that they are capable of being enforced consistently, and offer a degree of protection to those who are allergic.
I can only assume that the sulphite concentrations often bandied about by natural wine advocates also refer to sulphur dioxide as measured by the optimised Monier-Williams method, but I have never seen it stated. You will typically see sulphite concentrations quoted if a low-intervention producer choses to add sulphites, but otherwise an informal description of a low-intervention wine will often only say “no added sulphites”. Just remember that there will still be sulphites in a no-added-sulphites wines, and quite likely more than 10 ppm. This may be fine if you are mainly concerned about the natural-credentials of the wine, but is definitely something to bear in mind if you have a serious sulphite allergy.
So that is my best shot at explaining more precisely what sulphites actually are, how they are regulated, and to what extent they are responsible for allergies. I have done my best to stick to facts to the extent I could establish them, and keep my opinions to myself, but I might be more indulgent in future posts now I know a bit more what I am talking about. If I’ve got something wrong, or could have explained something better, please let me know, and I will try to correct or improve what I have written.