NO SULFITES WINES
Many of you are reading this article on sulfites in wine, and you’ll find all the answers to questions that you may be asking yourself on this subject. The truth, by a French.
But be warned!
If you want to decrease your intake of sulfites, you are right to take an interest in wine. The good news is that you can find wines with very little sulfites, and I will explain all later in the article.
However, there is bad news. Sulfites are also in many other foods and pose all sorts of more or less chronic health problems. I recommend that you additionally read my article “Dangers of Sulfites.”
Wine deserves a whole separate post because of its place in the hearts of the French, American and so many people enjoying food, friends and family. But above all, because of its sulfite content!
Rue89 Le Nouvel Obs French newspaper spoke about it to us in August 2012 with an article entitled “Because of Wine, 1 million French intake of Sulfites above the safety dose.” In this article, we read that “the Agence Nationale de Sécurité Sanitaire (ANSES) indicates that 3% of adults exceed the acceptable daily intake of sulfites,” and this, “mainly due to the consumption of wine.”
As an unusual departure, I’ll start with the conclusion of this post:
Wines that are conventional, organic, biodynamic, and even those “without added sulfites” still contain too many for those of us who are sensitive to them. The wines you find in your retail store or network wine shop are all in this category.
For these wines, a glass of 18 cl frequently contains 10 mg of sulfites in the best case scenario and up to 80 mg in the worst case. Let us recall that the ADI (Acceptable Daily Intake) for normal people is 50 mg of sulfites a day. With a single glass of wine at 10 mg per day, we are already in an area that causes us problems. Wine is not the only source of possible sulfites during the day.
The only solution is to seek natural wines. In this category of wine, there are some that have no added sulfites AND the Sulfites content is tested AND published by the winemaker. There are some good surprises with wines that contain less than 1 mg of sulfites per glass. I give you a list at the end of the chapter. To obtain them for yourself, you will have to purchase them directly or from independent wine shops that are passionate about these natural wines.
Now that I have given you the answer, I will explain the subtleties of sulfites in wine. You will understand the grounds that lead me to this conclusion.
Regulations Specific to Wine
A 2005 European directive requires all wines whose sulfur (S02) is greater than 10 mg/l to mention on the front or back label “contains sulfites” or “contains sulfur dioxide,” with or without mentioning E220 or SO2. However, and this is an issue, the actual sulfite concentration is not compulsory and is not indicated.
The mere mention “contains sulfites” on the label does not tell whether a wine contains 10 mg/l or 400 mg/l sulfites. Similarly, other references like “without added sulfites,” “organic wine,” “biodynamic wine,” “Demeter” or “natural wine” can help, but this is on the condition of understanding what they mean about the content of sulfites. That is why we must examine the matter more closely.
In the case of wine, you may occasionally hear about free or combined SO2. The free SO2 + combined SO2 = total SO2.
- The free SO2 is of importance for the winemaker, as it will be the most active in the wine. The free SO2 is composed of SO2, bisulfite (HSO3-) and sulfite (SO32-). The balance between the three forms is created during the various additions of SO2 based on the wine pH (acidity).
- The combined SO2 is composed of sulfites (HSO3-) that blend with other molecules having a carbonyl group. It is mainly present in the wine as acetaldehyde bisulfite.
The most important thing to know is that it is the total SO2 which accounts for our health. In our bodies, all forms of sulfites become SO2.
The maximum concentrations allowed for conventional wines will vary. The law sets different maximum levels of sulfites according to the nature of the wine. The more white and sweet the wine, the more they need sulfites to be manufactured and stabilized, and the more the law allows high maximum levels:
- Dry red wines = 160 mg/l or 32 mg for a glass
- Natural sweet wines = 200 mg/l or 40 mg for a glass
- Dry white and rosé wines = 210 mg/l or 42 mg for a glass
- Sparkling wines = 210 mg/l or 42 mg for a glass
- Semi-dry wines = 260 mg/l or 52 mg for a glass
- Sweet wines = 300 mg/l or 60 mg for a glass
- Liqueur wines = 400 mg/l or 80 mg for a glass
Of course, these are the maximum levels permitted and all wines do not contain as much. However, the maximum dose per glass is interesting to calculate for the realization that three glasses of a bad wine bring us to a much higher doses than the recommended daily intake for a normal person (50 mg of sulfites a day for a person 75 kg).
A glass of conventional wine that has a low dose of sulfites (30 mg/l) will contain only 6 mg. However, with three glasses we already get 18 mg, or 45% of that notorious ADI.
Sulfites in Wine Making
We will now explain what sulfites are used for in wine making in order to understand why we find high doses in wine to a greater or lesser extent.
Sulfites have four key roles:
- Preservative: they protect the wine from oxidation by combining with oxygen.
- Antiseptic and antifungal: they enable the control of alcoholic fermentation by blocking the growth of bacteria and some yeasts. They are used to kill fungus and mold and then disinfect the barrels and equipment.
- Stabilizing and controlling: they enable the promotion of more efficient yeasts for alcoholic fermentation by blocking certain other yeasts.
- Dissolving and clarifying: they accelerate the decomposition of the grape and the release of tannins and aromas. They precipitate certain components like polyphenols.
They are, therefore, used throughout the production of wine:
- When disinfecting barrels: this is done by burning a sulfur wick. Sulfur combustion then disengages sulfur dioxide SO2 and a rotten egg odor. This sulfur dioxide penetrates the wood of the barrel and will then migrate into the wine when it is filled. In the presence of water in the wine, it will turn into sulfurous acid.
- During the grape harvest: when the various manipulations smash grapes, sugar comes in contact with oxygen from the air. Sulfites are used to avoid starting an uncontrolled fermentation.
- During alcoholic fermentation: if it fulfills the desired criteria.
- In the particular case of mutage: This step enables stopping the fermentation of the musk and keeping the residual sugar to obtain the wines known as sweet or liquors.
- At the end of alcoholic fermentation: to block the malolactic fermentation.
- During air extractions: when the wine is transferred to from barrel to barrel during its aging.
- Just before bottling: to stabilize the wine for transportation and marketing.
- They are even indirectly introduced by the chemicals used in the vineyard of which some contain sulfur and derivatives.
Wines without sulfur or without added sulfites
You may have read it on bottle labels or maybe your wine seller has spoken to you about it–there are wines without sulfites.
This is not a solution for us. We must speak of wines without sulfur or without added sulfites, because sulfites are also formed “naturally” in the wine. The growth of yeasts during fermentation is accompanied by formation of more or less volatile sulfur compounds from sulfur-containing amino acids of grapes, as well as sulfur-containing additives such as pesticides.
That is why, depending on the origin of the conventional or organic grape, and other factors, the dose of sulfites naturally produced during the fermentation may vary considerably. I find that talking about natural sulfites when they originated from the chemicals used in the vineyard is one heck of a marketing ploy. Conventional wine without added sulfites are given sulfite levels in the order of 30 mg/l.
Organic, Biodynamic and Natural Wines
We will see what the sulfites content of each of these categories of wine can be.
We will begin by clarifying some principles to understand how each label can help us choose wines with the minimum of sulfites.
The wine industry talks a lot about natural and organic wines. This gives rise to many impassioned positions with very different views. Sulfites are discussed often. However, it is not always easy for us to understand as consumers. I will try to explain the inside story.
The champions of the most natural possible wines wish to eliminate all chemicals in grape cultivation and wine making, but nevertheless allow the use of sulfites added as the sole chemical product. The best of them come to rely only on natural sulfites produced by fermentation and the final doses in their wines are very low. Less experienced winemakers can add up to about 50 mg/l.
Sulfites are essential to the manufacture of wine but at significantly different doses depending on the methods used.
With the objective of maximum reduction of the use of sulfites, the most natural wines are intended to give expression to nature and, therefore, to produce wines with changing tastes for which transport conditions are much more demanding. These are not the wines that you produce in large quantities and ship around the world. This is not a formatted product for a consumer who wants a standardized product.
On the other hand, sulfites are needed to produce a consistent quality wine year after year despite the vagaries of weather, and to ship it safely abroad. It is, therefore, at the heart of your concerns if you have a wine with an established reputation that you sell to American and Asian consumers. They want to recognize your wine in each bottle and each vintage without surprises.
In France, the Wine export business rank #2 after the Aeronautic industry, think Airbus, and weight a mere 19 billion euros a year. Big money is at play here. The financial implications of the use of sulfites in the wine industry are therefore considerable. This is the reason for the radically different approaches and discourses that we hear.
The champions of conventional wine were forced to communicate on the subject of sulfites under pressure from natural wines and the expectations of the public. They then explained to us that sulfites are natural, used since the Romans, and that they have worked hard to significantly reduce the doses they use. They also tell us that wines without sulfites are simply bad.
You need to understand three important things to make sense out of it:
Producing and selling an established wine brand in large quantities and with an international clientele will have required considerable investment and many years. This makes it impossible for such vintners, or rather such companies, to start producing natural wines. It’s like asking companies that produce hundreds of thousands of sweaters for retailers to make hand-knit sweaters for sale at the village market. It is not at all the same craft. That is why conventional wine companies have no alternative but to defend the image of their product, and they have considerable resources to do it.
The amounts of sulfites in conventional wines, organic wines, or biodynamic wines, are not fundamentally different for sensitive people like us. One glass easily reaches 10 mg. On the other hand, natural wines can have considerably smaller doses with, for some, doses lower than 5 mg/l, 1 mg per glass.
Organic wines, biodynamic wines and natural wines are accompanied by labels and charters. A label requires compliance with legal obligations and requires certification. A charter is a recommendation defined and applied by the winemakers themselves. This does not necessarily mean that a label is good and a charter bad. A label is obtained at a certain cost, and may not be available to a small winemaker. A label has a marketing value that is not necessarily valuable for a small production that is sold by word of mouth. Finally, a winemaker may have invested in the AB label several years ago for the organic culture of his grapes, and now manufactures a totally organic wine, without having new labels on the manufacturing. So, we’ll try to see clearly!
To make wine, there are two main stages:
Growing grapes can be done conventionally or organically. As part of conventional cultivation, herbicides, fertilizers and chemical pesticides contain sulfur compounds, which can then lead to the presence of sulfites in the wine.
The winemaking can be conventional or organic. Of course, the manufacture of an organic wine requires organic grapes from the start. A wine “made from grapes issuing from organic agriculture” can use conventional methods and therefore have doses of sulfites as high as any other wine.
Before 2012, the Organic Agriculture AB label related only to growing grapes. We only talked about wine “made from organic grapes,” but the label did not guarantee organic winemaking.
Before 2012, and to cover the manufacture of wine, charters “Vin Bio FNIVAB” and “Natures & Progrès” organized a private charter and certification for fully organic wines. These certifications are given to wines that are already certified “AB agriculture biologique.”
Since 2012, the AB organic farming label has covered growing grapes and making wine.
The manufacture of organic wine limits the number and amount of chemicals that can be used during vinification and aging of the wine. The sulfite content is reduced from 30 to 50 mg/liter over conventional wines. The maximum authorized quantity remains important to us.
They obey rules even more stringent than organic wines and are certified by two organizations:
Demeter, created in 1932: it applies to all biodynamic agricultural activities and not just wine production. There are 287 certified wine estates in France.
Biodyvin, created in 1995: vineyards must be grown fully biodynamically. It brings together 86 winegrowers in Europe
Basically, growing the grapes must be done organically as for organic wines.
It is during the production of the wine (vinification) that chemical additions are even more limited. The sulfite content this time is two to three times less than in conventional wines.
The Quantity of Sulfites Will Depend on Several Factors
We have seen that when moving from conventional wines to organic wines, then to biodynamic Demeter and Biodyvin, you are moving towards wines whose regulation decreases the allowed dose of sulfites.
Within each of these categories, there are still very large differences in the final dose. This is due to a number of factors which I shall now explain.
The type of wine: the whiter the wine is and the sweeter it is, the more sulfites it contains. The reason is that sugar is the fuel of fermentation, and that it requires more sulfites to kill any resumption of fermentation. You should, therefore, turn towards dry red wines.
The wine production quality: manual harvesting, where the clusters are sorted and preserved until their crushing, requires less sulfites than a harvest conducted by machine, which bruises the grapes and risks starting uncontrolled fermentation. The care given to the hygiene of equipment, tools, barrels and machinery used for aging wine can limit the use of sulfites. You, therefore, need to choose quality wines with small yields and a maximum of manual labor.
The weather: good vintages where nature has been kind will have less need to be remedied by the addition of various additives, including sulfites.
The age of the wine: sulfites degrade over time. Bottles over 10 years of age would no longer include sulfites. Note that this is inconsistent with the wines that require a minimum of sulfites in their manufacture, as these wines will not keep. Aim for very young wines that do not keep, or wine over 10 years.
To come to a conclusion between conventional, organic and biodynamic wines, we shall say in general that the maximum allowed dose of sulfites may be two to three times lower in a biodynamic wine, but it is still a significant amount for sensitive persons like us. The differences between these wines are, however, much more significant for other chemicals.
Let’s recap the situation
Sulfites rates for different categories and wine production methods:
So, you can see that it is natural wines that radically changed the situation in terms of sulfite doses, and that’s why we will look at them in detail. It is mostly the natural wines for which winemakers display the rates of sulfites on the label that deserve our attention.
Natural wines are those that do not use any chemicals for the grape growing or winemaking.
The grapes are grown like they are for organic and biodynamic wines, that is to say, without pesticides, herbicides or synthetic chemical fertilizers. The harvest is manual to better select the grapes and to damage them less, and to prevent their fermentation and degradation.
During the winemaking, the use of chemicals is also proscribed unlike for organic wines.
Does this apply to sulfites as well then? Yes, but this is largely theoretical, if not philosophical. This deserves some explanation.
The manufacture of so-called natural wine is a sort of quest or search for an ideal for winemakers who no longer identify with industrial and chemical wine. However, natural wines are not supervised by law nor well-structured by the profession.
So, let’s not get carried away with nice stories about natural wines. Yes, it is an approach with which we agree, and yes, it is very great progress towards reducing the sulfite doses used. However, it is not a guarantee of sulfite-free wine.
We have seen the importance of sulfites and you can imagine that without their help, a winemaker might simply lose a large number of bottles from a year of production. Between the theory of a completely natural wine and the reality of its production every year, and selling it just to continue to work, there is a great deal of wiggle room!
We will deepen our knowledge of natural wines to find what might suit us.
Fermentation yeasts naturally produce 5 to 30 mg/l of sulfites. We can imagine that if the grapes are organic and contain fewer sulfur compounds, since they were not treated with synthetic products, the natural sulfite content of a natural wine is rather closer to 5 mg/l than 30 mg/l.
The winemaker will rely on these natural sulfites for a successful wine. However, this requires more precise and expensive working methods, lower yields, and great expertise in winemaking without added sulfites. Not all winemakers who make natural wine have this expertise still, or they may face a climate hazard, necessitating adding sulfite to their wine. However, they will do so by searching for the lowest dose.
In order to formalize the natural wine approach, professionals created the ANV (Association des Vins Naturels). They produced a charter in which the only chemicals they allow themselves to add to their wines are sulfites:
“No oenological input used except SO2 (added sulfites), at a rate of maximum content of total SO2: 30 mg/l for red and sparkling wines, 40 mg/l for white wines, 80 mg/l for white wines with residual sugars > 5 g/l. “
Natural wines with less than 5 mg/l of sulfites
Beyond the standards, certifications and marketing and all that goes with it, a small minority of winemakers are transparent. Whether they produce organic, biodynamic or natural wines, the most important thing is that they test sulfite rates in their wines and communicate them on their websites or on the label. Here we have a few good surprises. Take a look at the following label yourself:
You read right, the total SO2 is 2 mg/l! There are many other pleasant surprises of the same sort, and I invite you to browse the list of analyses published by www.vinsnaturels.fr to take your pick: http://www.vinsnaturels.fr/010_analyses/010_analyses .php
Where to buy wine with 5 mg/l of sulfites
You understand that if you go into a supermarket or even into a wine chain, you will be hard pressed to find these wines. The reason is that they sell the wines they can supply in quantity without transport problems.
If you simply ask for a wine “without sulfites,” you will have great difficulty in knowing how much interest your wine seller–normally passionate about wine and especially with earning a living from it–has in chemicals and sulfites in wine.
Some have a passion for the taste of wine and do not identify with natural wines which are far from unanimous in their taste.
Your wine seller may explain to you, with all his specialist language, that these are not good wines, that sulfites are essential and “natural.” He also believes that reducing the abuse of sulfites in conventional wines is sufficient. He recommends wines that are “virtually” without sulfites, but in fact contain 50 mg/l. It is great progress, but it’s still too large dose for us.
On the other hand, with all that you now know, you can use his expertise to make your choice of wine terroirs and characters by picking natural wines with sulfite contents that are tested and published at less than 5 mg/l. If he will not help you, go your own way and find another wine seller, or buy directly.
Now, to find out more about all the health problems posed by Sulfites, I recommend you also read my article “Dangers of Sulfites.”
Is the Wine always a nice experience for you? Or did you had problems already?