Sulfites in organic wine… that old chestnut

In response to those who wonder why we still don’t make organic AND preservative free wines, whilst other organic grape growers are doing it:

Our decision not to venture into the Preservative free style is based on quality concerns. As a participant in the Australia New Zealand Wine Show since 2006, we have been keeping a close eye on the progress of preservative free organic wines. These are the results from last month’s 2010 show in Sydney. There were some fantastic organic wines, and there were a total of 4 gold medals, 12 silver and 58 bronzes out of 158 entries. The average number of gold medals from 2006 to 2009 is 2.75, so it was a far above average year for quality. However, the judges decided that this year there would be no trophy for the preservative free wines, because none of them was good enough. If you read the results with comments (sent to exhibitors), these are the main describing words for the 13 preservative free wines in the show: “wild, sour, pungent, yeasty, rubbery, rancid, raw, grubby, clunky, tough”… All were reds, except one rose, and not all of them got bad comments – some were still enjoyed by the judges – but only three of them got bronze medals, and even they were described as “idiosyncratic” and “tangy”.

To balance this year’s results though, I have to admit that in past years there were some great trophy-winning preservative free wines in the show – 2009 Lowe merlot, the 07 Temple Bruer shiraz malbec and the Settlers Ridge sangiovese – but we missed out in this years show.

Of course, you might be wondering what I am getting at, if your concern is only about wine purity, not quality. Well for us it is more about wine style, consistency and palatability and growing the organic wine market. Our reds are traditional in style – they are made with some sulfur, but only a very small amount, and they are made to age and gain complexity and character, with the tannins softening over time. The judges described them as “attractive”, “earthy” and “balanced”. Rosnay didn’t win any gold in this year’s show, but we picked up 5 bronze medals and one silver out of 9 wines entered. The 2006 reds all won bronzes and we won all of the medals in the museum class – showing that our wines age well. The amount of sulfur in the 2006 reds was only around 20 parts per million (total) when bottled (compared to 0-10ppm for preservative free wines), and they are sure to have less than that now having been bottled under cork, as the sulfur dissipates with oxygen contact (and incidentally, decanting).
We truly believe such a low level of sulfur (and even up to 50ppm total) is harmless except to true allergy sufferers, and we actually offer a money back guarantee to anyone with sulfur intolerance, for our museum wines. With regard to purity, we do not add oak or oak chips to the wine, and we do not add fining proteins to soften the reds when they are young.

Hard core organic consumers (bless them) will accept preservative wines needing to be drunk quickly, but to most palates, preservative free wines tend to be a special style with limited mass appeal. They must be made for bottling early and drinking young, and thus they have a lot of forward fruit flavour and not a lot of complexity. We have to assume they will be stored properly, which is unrealistic. Some wine producers I spoke to at the Show this year said that organic wine sales are declining in the US, where sulfites are not allowed to be used at all (so our wine if sold there would be “wine made from organic grapes”) because most consumers and commentators prefer more complex, interesting, and moderately aged wines.

To date, we have not made a preservative free Rosnay wine, and although we ask our winemaker to do it every year, every year he talks us out of it. As organic farmers, our main aim is to supply our customers with the very best quality product that we can, using farming methods that enhance the earth and avoid the chemicals that we believe are the cause of so many illnesses. Perhaps the increasing prevalence of sulfur and other food intolerances is related to our daily chemical exposure in modern life? Or, are there other factors at play? Without endorsing any product, these sources suggest that sulfur intolerance may have roots in nutritional deficiencies:


“People allergic to sulfites used as preservatives in salad bars, wine, and dried fruit may be helped by trace molybdenum. Molybdenum functions as a component in several enzymes including those involved in alcohol detoxification, uric acid formation, and sulfur metabolism. Molybdenum deficiency manifests itself as an inability to detoxify sulfites as the enzyme that detoxifies sulfites, sulfite oxidase, is molybdenum dependent. Molybdenum supplementation brought about complete resolution of symptoms of sulfite toxicity such as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, headache, disorientation, nausea, and vomiting” (Source: //life-enthusiast.com/usa/supernutrient-corp-m-20.html?pID=441)
“Molybdenum deficiency may lead to amino acid intolerance, irritability, elevated urinary xanthine and sulfite, and reduced uric acid and sulfate. Condition cured by 160 microg Mo/d administered.” (Source: Aburnrad NN, Schneider AJ, Steel D, Rogers LS. Amino acid intolerance during prolonged total parenteral nutrition reversed by molybdate therapy. Am J Clin Nutr 198 ; 34:2551-2559 cited in //www.imoa.info/HSE/environmental_data/biology/molybdenum_cofactor.html).


According to NSW Agriculture, deficiencies of this trace element occur throughout much of NSW. However, organic foods tend to be higher in micro-nutrients, and this may be the reason organic wine, even with a small amount of sulfur added to help it age well, may be better for you. (See //www.ota.com/organic/benefits/nutrition.html)


Besides, sulfur is natural: “Sulfur is one of the Seven Macrominerals for animals and plants Part of the chemical structure of several amino acids, sulfur aids in many biochemical processes. It helps protect the body from infection, blocks the harmful effects of radiation and pollution and slows down the ageing process. Sulfur-containing proteins are the building blocks of cell membranes, and sulfur is a major component of the gel-like connective tissue in cartilage and skin. Sulphur is found in cruciferous vegetables, eggs, milk and animal products.” Source: Nourishing Traditions, by Sally Fallon, 2nd Edition (2001) .


So for the time being, our jury on preservative free wine is still out, and the old chestnut will remain until more winemakers agree and demonstrate that quality, agead wines can be made consistently without a touch of elemental sulfur.

Have you ever had preservative free wine? Please feel free to share your experiences!

4 Replies to “Sulfites in organic wine… that old chestnut”

  • Yes I have had preservative free wine from a producer in Cumnock and it was OK but not claimed to be organic.  I am lead to believe that if the wine is left in barrels for a minimum 2 years you do not need to use a preservative (sulphur) and that is what this producer does but your article doesn’t seem to suggest this?  Sam it is great to see that you use low levels of sulphur in your reds and I have enjoyed the reds that I have purchased from you to date and this includes some of older vintages.

  • Hi Barry. Personally I think you are right that letting a wine breath does help as its probably the free SO2 that causes reactions, not the bound SO2. But regarding powdered vs gas form, I dont know, so I spoke to our winemaker about it and he says it may not be relevant. He has worked in wineries where they solely use gas, and solely powder, and he hasn’t seen any difference in SO2 addition rates or timing, or longevity in the bottled product.
    With regard to gas form venting quicker, its not really logical, he says, as in either case there is both free and bound SO2, and the free SO2 vaporises leaving the the bound SO2 behind. In saying that he says gas is a more accurate way of using SO2, but powdered is safer for staff to use.
    Thanks for sharing this interesting idea.

  • I’ve drunk Settlers Ridge organic wines that were treated with sulhur gas, rather than having powdered sulfur added.  I believe that they bubble the gas through the wine.  That way it vents quickly when the bottle is opened, effectively become sulfur free.  My wife is sensitive to sulfur in wines and she can drink the Settlers Ridge.  Perhpas that technique is a way forward for the organic wine industry?

  • I agree with your position.

    When we talk about the benefits of drinking organic wine, we usually talk about

    1) improved taste
    2) benefit to the environment of not destroying soil and ecosystem with toxic chemicals
    3) benefits to health of farmers from not farming with toxic chemicals, and
    4) benefits to our health from not drinking wines with residual chemicals

    These are HUGE wins for everyone – especially for the environment – and IMO they’re worth fighting for.

    There’s room for organic wine with and without sulfur because consumers deserve a choice — BUT the stipulation always has to be that its high quality.

    The issue is that organic wine without SO2 often lets the team down in quality – and worse consumers are frequently turned off organic wine in general, drinking SO2-free wine that they don’t understand. Lets be clear, there are some fantastic natural SO2 free organic wines. But the good ones are rare, and they often take a sophisticated palate, an acquired taste to really appreciate.

    The huge wins that drinking organic wine achieves are too important to risk, IMO. I’d rather see organic producers stick to producing wine with small amounts of sulfur, and have wine made with organically farmed grapes grow in popularity, rather than risk the reputation of organic wine as a whole by pushing for SO2 free.

    Lets hope that one day an organic preservative can be found.

    Cheers

    Matt

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