Reaction to SO2 is something I am very familiar with. I am clinically allergic to anything remotely resembling sulphur – which is serious misery for a vinophile. The truth is, although I taste a lot of wines, I can’t actually have long sessions of wine drinking without shocking migraines the next day. The more heavily-sulphured ones give me cheeks resembling Santa, and sinuses stuffed with cotton wool within a single glass.
In the past six months, I’ve noticed a lot more customers asking for preservative-free wines. I thought this was reflection of the demographic around the particular store I was in, but a few weeks ago I moved to a store on the other side of Melbourne, and the trend continues there – albeit to a lesser degree.
When they first come into the store, they are certain of one thing – they don’t want stuffy sinuses and headaches from their wines. What they don’t seem certain about is what all the different claims are on the bottles. So, let me offer some advice:
Organic wines are made from grapes grown without the use of artificial chemical fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides or herbicides. However, this does NOT mean the wine is preservative free. Sulphur can be added during the winemaking process to stabilise and preserve the wine, and chemicals from neighbouring vineyards can be carried in the wind to the otherwise organically grown grapes. If you’re sensitive to sulphur, read the back label. It MUST list any preservatives, and the one you’re trying to avoid is 220.
This takes ‘organic’ to a whole new level. It’s not just about the absence of chemicals, but espouses a ‘holistic‘ approach to raising grapes by emphasising the interrelationships between plants, animals, and soils. And it goes further – using an astronomical calendar to indicate plant sowing times, and I’ve even heard of farmers dancing naked among their crops under full moons … however, having seen a few winemakers over the years, I’m not sure that’s something to either believe or get excited over. Biodynamic is sustainable, environment-friendly and very new age. But again, check the back label for information about any 220 added during winemaking.
Fermenting grape juice actually contains a small amount (10-50mg/L) of sulphur dioxide – a natural preservative – produced by the yeasts. Thus, technically speaking, there’s no such thing as preservative FREE wine. Those claiming to be preservative free are referring to the absence of ADDED preservatives. They really should be labelled “lower preservatives“. Regardless, most customers who try them seem to come back for them – although they do admit the wines are somewhat ordinary. The few that I’ve tried at tastings confirm that, and are often a little oxidised.
Personally speaking, to restrict oneself to a small range of wines, when there are tens of thousands out there to enjoy, seems a bit depressing. As I said, I can’t handle sulphur myself – so, how do I deal with it, and still enjoy a wide variety of wines? There’s a few considerations I make:
Close to half of the organic producers around the world are French. Admittedly, I don’t appreciate a lot of French wines, but I am working on that, as I have personally found that French wines give me less/no reaction.
I try to avoid mass-produced wines, or wines from hotter regions – where SO2 is added as a fermentation-control measure as early as harvest. No, this doesn’t mean cooler regions DON’T practice this, just less so.
Finally, I carry a bottle of Pure Wine around with me. That way, I can drink any wine being poured by friends, ordered at a restaurant or given as a gift. One drop per glass. Yes, people look at me with suspicion when I pull the bottle out of my bag and ‘spike’ my wine – but that doesn’t worry me – it makes me look cool. 😉