The term ‘sulphites’ and ‘SO₂’ have become increasingly part of winespeak. So, what exactly are they and why are they relevant?
Use of sulphur dioxide in winemaking has been around for centuries. It was produced on the spot by burning a piece of sulphur, empty casks were sterilised by lowering the burning sulphur into the cask.
A little basic chemistry; a sulphite is a compound that contains the sulphite ion, which is an electrically charged particle. SO₂ or Sulphur Dioxide, is not a sulphite but a closely related chemical oxide. This is formed when the element sulphur is burned in air.
The simplest way of obtaining sulphur dioxide is by using potassium metabisulphite, a white crystalline substance used as an antioxidant. This substance releases sulphur dioxide when dissolved in an ‘acid aqueous liquid’, and our favourite acid aqueous liquid is wine! Sulphur dioxide can also be used in its liquified gas form. It is toxic in large doses, but generally accepted as harmless when used correctly and is widely used as a preservative in many foodstuffs such as dried fruit, fruit juices and sausages. However it is known to cause allergic reactions in people with asthma.
More relevant to this subject however is the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum daily intake, 0.7mg per kilo of bodyweight. For a man of average weight this is less than one third of a bottle of conventional white wine. Regular consumption of conventional wines could therefore mean quite regularly exceeding the RDA by a large margin.
Use of SO₂ can result in a loss of fruit and generally, good winemakers use it very sparingly. The principle use of SO₂ is as an antioxidant, ie. a preservative. It is also used as an antiseptic or antimicrobial agent as it kills bacteria in wine, in particular acetobacter which turns wine into vinegar. It keeps lactic-acid bacteria under control as well as Brettanomyces, often referred to as ‘brett’, a yeast that can cause spoilage in wine. Sulphur dioxide is in addition used as a corrective to freshen wine that has been poorly handled and begun to oxidize.
Under EU regulations, any wine that contains more than 10 milligrams per litre (mg/l) must be labelled ‘contains sulphites’ or ‘contains SO₂’, but here is where the story gets interesting; virtually all wines contain naturally present sulphites, as traces are produced by yeasts during fermentation, and usually at a higher amount than 10 mg/l, so even most natural wines will have ‘contains sulphites’ on the label. White wines generally require more SO₂ than reds as they do not have the benefit of protective tannins.
So what’s all the buzz about? Why are people asking for wines without added SO₂?
This shows a very wide variation in permitted levels, especially considering the base-line is sixteen times less than the highest permitted level for dry red wine.
Various organic organisations impose differing limits on certified and labelled products:
Nature&Progres and Demeter - 70, 90 and 210 mgs/l for red, white and sweet respectively.
The natural wine movement eschews the use of what are seen as unnecessary additives in wine, sulphur dioxide being high on the list. Winemakers who are part of this movement want to create a pure expression of their product. It takes immense skill to make a wine without any preservatives that shows the individuality of varietals and place. It is also understandable that if a consumer wants to limit their exposure to chemicals, by buying organic food and wine for example, that they would like to drink wines with less preservatives added. On a personal level, sticking to the WHO recommended daily limits for SO₂ would make a big dent in consumption, and that’s no fun at all.
There is a distinction between free SO₂ and total SO₂. When it combines with other natural substances such as sugars, aldehydes and ketones, sulphur dioxide is no longer protective and is known as the ‘combined, bound or fixed’ SO₂. There are higher amounts of aldehydes and ketones in poorly made and oxidized wines, therefore a greater proportion of the SO₂ becomes combined leaving less available for its primary purpose of protecting the wine. The ‘free’ SO₂ and the ‘combined’ equals the’ total’ SO₂.Combined SO₂ is released by stomach acid and is free to do its damage if above the safe amount.
Just to clarify; although most white or sweeter wines will have higher doses of SO₂, it is only the combined SO₂ that will usually become a problem and this will be higher in poorly made wines, so drinking a top class Riesling Auslese with a maximum of 350 mg/l will be better than a poorly made red wine with a maximum of 160 mg/l, but it will still make quite a dent in the RDA!
There are other substances in wine that can cause unpleasant reactions. Histamine and Tyramine are produced by lactic acid bacteria during malolactic conversion. There are higher amounts in red wines and they have been implicated in triggering headaches and ‘red wine intolerance’. Indeed, tannins themselves can also cause headaches.
White wines are more delicate and require higher protective amounts of SO₂. In addition they have a higher acidity which increases the release of SO₂ from solution and may be a cause of ‘white wine intolerance’.
As we know, white wines are more delicate due to less protection from skin tannins. The natural wine movement has found some degree of solution with the trend in ‘skin contact’ wines, white wine grapes allowed to macerate for varying lengths of time adding these protective substances to the wine thus enabling a far less interventionist regime. These winemaking techniques bring differing complexities to what is seen as usual for a particular variety. Amber coloured Pinot Grigios, Gewürztraminers with the most lusciously deep honeyed depth and complexity, these are wines that open up a whole new flavour profile.
Beaucastel, widely acknowledged as one of the world’s great wines, has been the subject of of a case study suggesting that the most successful vintages have been marked with high levels of Brettanomyces. It seems like a little bit, properly managed, can add to a wines character. Granted this is quite a specific type of wine, robust varietals and blends that can be positively enhanced, not delicate, soft wines where the highly noticeable brett characteristics would overpower.
However, it leads to an interesting and quite relevant supposition; if major players in the wine industry cannot agree if a bit of brett enhances a wine or not, the whole idea of ‘faulty’ wine comes into question. Obviously unpalatable stinky odours and sour flavours are one end of the spectrum, but a hint of this or that, who is to say whether it is not part of the whole wonderful idiosyncratic world that is wine? It is such a subjective area, all of our smelling and tasting history as individuals has such a bearing on how we perceive a wine. A possible reason for the acceptance of what purists would call faulty wine is the explosion of the craft beer industry in parallel with the natural wine trend. The flavour profile of some natural wines, with their unfettered yeasty aromas and flavours, could be described as similar to a pale ale. The intensely beautiful ‘Haggis’ by maverick Australian winemaker Patrick Sullivan has definite characteristics that would appeal to anyone who had a fondness for complex beers.
Limiting or eliminating the involvement of SO₂ in winemaking gives cause for the use of quality techniques, the winemaker has to ensure exceptionally high standards lest their whole vintage may spoil. Ingenuity, best practice and superior production can minimise intervention, creating wines of particular nuance and individuality.
Below is a list of the pros and cons of using sulphur dioxide in winemaking:
Whilst there is no excuse for winemakers to release faulty wines just because they are ‘natural’, the perception of fault can be highly individual. If the wine is pleasant to drink and expresses what the winemaker wants it should be enjoyed as just that.
A possible move forward would be for EU permitted levels and possibly the combined SO₂ to be displayed on bottles giving consumers the choice. Food labelling is far more rigorous so it seems only fair that we are given proper information about what is actually in our wine. Certified organic and biodynamic wines will have far less SO₂ added so maybe until then experiment with more naturally made wines, broaden your horizons and indulge in new experiences.
Regardless of our many shortcomings, humans are incredibly inventive and imaginative. Thousands of years ago, we knew of this berry that at certain times of year ripened into something sweet and delicious. When stored in large vessels, some magic happened. The naturally occurring yeasts in the air and on the berries combined with the sugars in the fruit, this added with the wonder of time created a marvellous beverage. The drink was and is wine. The history of winemaking is a fascinating subject and although it is not the subject of this blog post, it does highlight the way in which wine was made for many hundreds of years, barely unchanged.
We maintained our ingeniousness throughout wines history. If there was an early frost that affected the grapes, we made Eiswein rather than see crop failure. If the grapes were accidentally left in the sun and shrivelled up we made things like Pedro Ximenez; a barrel of wine exposed to excessive heat whilst on board a ship traversing the world's oceans? Why, I'll have some of your finest Madeira please! The examples are endless, most all fortified, sherried or sweet wines were created by happy accident.
The method of wine production was for most of its history a simple but inexact process, and the end results varied greatly year on year. The introduction of commercially made wines led to a desire for a predictable product. Over the centuries many strange substances have been added to wine in order to achieve this stability.
Primarily, a substance is added to a wine to help stabilize and clarify it. Preservatives are also added to prevent spoilage. A fining agent can remove yeasts and proteins, which can cause the wine to look cloudy. They can also be used to remove excessive tannins in harsh young red wines. Fining agents include albumen, casein, isinglass which is derived from fishes swim bladders, chitosan, which is made from crustacean shells, and gelatine.
Most young wines, if left long enough under good conditions, would eventually reach the same state of clarity as fining can achieve within months, but fining saves money for the producer and therefore the consumer. Consequently, it has been more commercially made wines that tended to have such fining agents used.
Again, the adaptability of the humans comes into play as more and more producers are turning to animal friendly methods in their wine making. Why exclude an increasing number of your potential customer base unnecessarily? Alternatives include; bentonite clay, carbon, limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, vegetable plaques, and silica gel.
Current EU regulations state that any fining agent used should be declared an allergenic substance so it is quite easy for retailers to find out what has been used in any particular wine's production. A supplier should have an allergen file with details from the producer as to what potential allergens, and therefore animal substances, have been used in production.
With increasing interest in plant based diets we asked our suppliers to furnish us with this information so we could pass it on to customers. As we focus on organic and biodynamic wines is has been a pleasant surprise to discover that in addition the large majority of our wines are vegan friendly. The trend towards less commercially made wines makes it fairly easy to find producers that make lovely well made wines without the need for animal based fining products.
In an age of football clubs releasing footballers for free and then paying 100 million euros for them back a mere four years later. In an aeon where English expats living in Spain vote to leave Europe, it doesn't surprise me that we sell an orange wine that doesn't contain any oranges.
I presume it's called that due to its colour I believe you are thinking.
Well yes. It is.
Orange wine is what a millennial would Insta call 'blowing up' right now. It blowing up all over the wine world and people are picking up this left-field drink on summer eves more and more.
The wine is left a lot longer on the skin than other whites and placed in terracotta pots Roman style although the techniques are historically based thousands of years ago to the Eurasian wine producing country of Georgia.
The Italians have taken this craft and really ran with it. Here in our local we serve this tangerine beauty - Baglio Bianco - an organic Catarratto from western Sicily. We have so many Sicilian wines that I presume the island is just a volcano and vineyards. Made with three days maceration on skins this is almost bronze coloured with aromas of russet apples and red plums.
This natural wine is low on sulphites and decent in strength at 12%. Beautifully paired with pork, veal or poultry. I recommend this tasty Northern treat as a dish to eat and watch the new season of Game of Thrones with.
The estate this wine is made almost looks like a Kings Landing.
Thanks be to Jamie, such a lovely man.
He was a Naked Chef...That wasn't naked.
Oh, and if you are ever see me in the shop please rock up with some more contradictions.
I love a good hand signal.
Whether for the positive or negative I just love a good hand gesture.
Hand loaded pops seem to be confined to the coast to coast hipper hoppers of urban hoodlum hi-jinkers these days.
Da trend became overloaded in the nineties and noughties. The fashion was pushed to the very edges of fingered alchemy with futile comprehension that only tested those in the know.
The beauty of many designated fingers and thumbs was blown into spheres of history.
Now, a hand drawn finger thumb display towards a glancing gopher or hypnotised hawk has been forgotten amongst certain classes, culture or generation. The purification of a decent hand joust has been forgotten during this intermitting era
But we have been saved!
The two fingered Churchill salutation has arrived and thank Robin Hood fook!
I always presumed Churchill didn’t like me in his black and white war distilled glorified image but this well crafted industrialist salute makes me welcome.
I AM FOR THE GIN. Made a girl blind gin… Hogarth prints in waiting GIN. Too much to handle, ramble amble GIN.
Its here! And bloody good so.
Cold pressed gin for the steely. Cold pressed for the weary. Cold hearted dearly.
Reminds me of tainted youth…
Old man mentality with middle delinquency
Here’s the verb..
A Modern Distillery In The Heart Of London
VICTORY LONDON is situated right on Tower Bridge, on the south side of the river. In the basement of The Draft House Pub.
They are a micro distillery specialising in Gin and Bitters (Amaro).
At VICTORY they use a modern pharmaceutical technique to distil there products.
They are true to the classic styles of spirit but produce them for a modern age.
LETS HEAR FROM THEM!
Our Gin is handcrafted using a unique, modern process which achieves maximum botanical freshness and reduces waste. VICTORY COLD DISTILLED GIN undergoes a 24-hour infusion with carefully selected botanicals including juniper, cassia, black pepper, chestnut and orange. The infused spirit is then cold-distilled at below 50 degrees celsius under reduced pressure. The used botanicals are then further infused in to water, this water is cold-distilled to produce an aromatic ‘hydro-sol’ this is then blended with the final gin. Bringing a unique and delicate aroma. We love their Gin and Tonic with a thin slice of pink grapefruit and an orange zest.
Meat liquor for the hungry warmonger behemoth.
Choked on it
Thimble thread… Drop dead Fred.
Can you tell?
East side hand B.I.G style
I am a red man. Red in face when ran forth in exceeding speed. Red in face from the beating emissions of a sizzling yellow sun, especially upon my ginger haired paled faced complexion. Red in face when a dense and opulent bottled Spain slaps me with crimson tint awash. This is my beloved of the few that do, although a randy red is the peek. From belly bursts to faceted face I totter in admiration for this fine region of red. It’s been my staple through the student years. A firm favourite in the hedonistic raving 20’s and now that I approach the early mid thirties it seems to have bounced upon my brow once more. I almost feel that alcohol was invented for me with the creation of Alco-pops in my teens, Jager-bombs in my twenties and the explosion of regional craft beers in my thirties but back to the wine. The red red wine…
RIOJA IS ITS NAME and in this world of plenty for the fortunate it has tested time with its quenchable beauty. From ancient Romans introducing the vineyards, to medieval pilgrim’s traipsing through and taking the wine to many quarters of Europe. From Don Manuel Quintano visiting Bordeaux and taking the formula of oak barrels, thus increasing shelf life and rapid expansion to the Americas. To the mass devastation of the Bordeaux wine industry by vineyard sapping bugs called by a certain Doctor Who the Phylloxera. Who in-turn pushed the French to the region of Rioja and brought about style, skills and knowledge to the area that was exponentially reused. Recently the modern Rioja has taken on a couple of World Wars, when the vineyards were replanted with wheat to feed the populace and not replanted till the 1960s, however from this did bring upon the peek vintage of 1970. The 80’s saw high prices but low quality due to mass investment and over saturation. It seems the region got its funk back in the early 90’s and from then on the region was awarded the Denominación de Origen Calificada. It’s title of premier wine constituency.
Thank you, Wiki.
But why does this boy babble with booze on a very typical wine in which most of us have consumed by the pint and given no toss to the cheap cost of hoofing down the plonk of a questionably respectable six quid bottle… or maybe that’s just me. Was me. Very rarely me it seems, these days. Old student habits Diehard. Great film! Love da Bruce. Although he is a whiner instead of a wino when it comes to interviews, and seems a bit of an arse if you listen to Kevin Smiths You tube speeches. Sorry I digress. Back, to the babble.
Why do I babble? Well, there’s a new boy or girl or transgender or whatever we want on the block - Milu Bicicleta Voladora. It’s from the same makers as one of our best selling reds, you may have heard or drank called Milu.
Here the new wine is an old wine. Instead of the oak aged process that was craftily taken from the French all those moons ago here one of our favourite winemakers German R Blanco (Bond villain in waiting indeed) has gone back to push forward a fresher more modern take on Rioja. Fashion it seems circles and not just in fashion. This beauty of a young to be drank soon Rioja has a fresh fruity redness mixed with floral tone. This mainly Tempranillo with slight squeeze of Garnacha gives good acidity and tongue tints of tasty fairground treats such as candy floss flavoured quince. The work done on this bottle is kept to a minimum and the grapes left to speak for themselves. Cement tanks are used for fermentation leaving no cross over of manipulation. German is a great winemaker, with good moral principles in the manner of wine. He even blooming steps on the grapes from time to time.
Now over to our legendary contender… a Rioja that has been here longer that the time I’ve committed to this dear bespoke wine and craft beer shop. Though I have only just reached the celebratory two month mark! I am as napoleon said. A shopkeeper… for this is a nation of such.
Here is the classic.
Decenio Las Orcas, Rioja. This titan of a glass is a real performer. Gracing the wooden boards of vineyard theatrics for years with its solid performances, tight grape line stability and quaffing vocabulary. It’s more for the autumn and winter months but during these chilly Easter spring eves it gone down like a Mark Rylance Shakespearean birthday performance at the Abby in the style of promenade. This bottle is my ideal from all those student years ago. It would have tipped oneself earlier to the revelries of a more superior recital of a scene I had rehearsed many a time. Think orange peel and frosty spice. Arnold Schwarzenegger cigar and un-trodden forest floor. This wine is purely Tempranillo and speaks volumes of its region. There’s so much variance in the land that this particular bottle takes in the nose of the mountains, the body of the river Ebro and the tail dipped in the Mediterranean atmosphere.
Here be the food item to pair with such fine wines. As I am from the Red Rose of Lancashire, a northern pedigree chum I will bestow the beauty that is the humble making but complex tasting LANCASHIRE HOTPOT. The Rioja’s will blend the meat and juice quite finely, adding a delectable partner for each others grip as they ride down the Pleasure Beach double dipper hand in hand. Just don’t forget the side of red cabbage me duck!
After the food is digested, here is a jingle to be danced amid red wine in hand. A playful ditty that chorally reminds this writer of hypnotic sunsets at the Café del Mar. It’s a transcendent tune to frisk with or just drink the plonk and wander amongst your own reminiscences.
I would like to thank Chef Nigel Haworth for this supreme recipe:
1 kg under shoulder, neck and shin of lamb (Cut into 3-4cm thick pieces)· preferably regional lamb, 700g thinly sliced onions· 1kg peeled King Edward potatoes· 25g plain flour· 40g salted butter, melted· 150ml chicken stock· 3tsp sea salt· White pepper· Hotpot dish - stoneware, diameter 8"/21cm, height 3.5"/9cm·
- Season the lamb with 1 tsp of salt and a good pinch of pepper, dust with the flour. Put the lamb into the base of the hotpot dish.
- Sweat off the onions in 15g of butter with one tsp of salt for 4-5mins (to sweat is to cook without colour in a covered pan, on a moderate to hot temperature). Spread the onions evenly on top of the lamb in the hotpot dish.
- Slice the potatoes horizontally (2mm thick). Place in a medium size bowl; add the remaining 25g melted butter, season with 1 teaspoon of salt and a pinch of white pepper-mix well.
- Put the sliced potatoes evenly on top of the onions, reserving the best-shaped rounds for the final layer and add the chicken stock.
- Place the Hotpot, covered in a pre-heated oven for 30 minutes on 180-200C (Aga equivalent bottom of the baking oven) then for approximately 2½ hours on 130C (Aga equivalent in the simmering oven).
So they be the Rioja at you disposal from our quaint bespoke local wine shop. I do hope they may add some juice for the days squeeze.