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Sulphite-Free Wines – Do They Actually Exist?

Sulphite…

Just saying the word might make you feel a little bit nervous. It sounds like a nasty chemical in the first place and we know that it’s derived from sulphur. It just doesn’t sound like something that you would ever want to consume.

But if you’ve ever drank a glass of Italian wine, you’ve consumed sulphites. And the reason is that they’re in all wines! They’re a crucial part of the winemaking process and they’re produced naturally through it. Many producers even add sulphites to their wines to serve as a preservative that allows the wine to age for a longer period of time.

So, if that’s the case why are we hearing so much about sulphite-free wines? If sulphites are in all wines, what happens to the ones that don’t have them?

The rise of sulphite-free wines is part of the trend towards more natural forms of wine production that has occurred over the last few years. As we lean more towards organic and biodynamic production methods, we’re moving away from the days of adding sulphites to wines.

At least, some producers are.

But if you paid attention earlier, you will have noticed something important…

Sulphites are produced as part of the winemaking process. If that’s the case, is it even possible to produce wines without these chemicals.

In this article, we’ll answer that question and dig into what producers really mean when they tell you that they’ve made a sulphite-free wine.

Do Sulphite-Free Wines Exist?

You might have guessed from the end of the previous section that they don’t.

There is no such thing as a sulphite-free wine.

However, there are wines that contain such negligible amounts of sulphite that they’re practically sulphite-free.

Here’s how it works.

As mentioned, the winemaking process naturally produces sulphites, regardless of how naturally you’ve made the wine. They don’t need man-made chemicals to exist. They occur as part of the fermentation process. However, those who don’t follow the organic method will often add sulphites of their own to increasing the longevity of their wines.

It’s a practice that it almost as old as the industry itself.

And that brings us to another topic – are sulphites harmful?

Again, the answer is no, assuming that you’re not consuming them in super-high levels. No Italian wine contains so many sulphites that it will cause damage to you. But what separates these wines from those that claim to be sulphite-free is that they often contain sulphites added outside of the winemaking process.

So…what about the sulphite-free wines?

In the EU, a wine can claim to be sulphite-free if it contains 10mg of sulphites or less per litre of wine. Interestingly, most wines produce around 20mg per litre of sulphites when made naturally, so even organic and biodynamic wines struggle to hit this level!

We guess what we’re saying here is that the concept of a sulphite-free wine is a myth. It simply does not exist. Instead, what we have are wines where the producers have actively tried to reduce sulphite levels to a point where they’re negligible, often through using natural production levels.

And so, we come to yet another question…

Why should you care if there are lower levels of sulphites in your wine?

There are a few reasons why this has become a selling point for winemakers in recent years.

Why Go “Sulphite-Free”?

The first reason we can come up with is almost a scaremongering one. As we mentioned at the top of the article, the world sulphite conjures up some negative connotations in regards to the chemicals that are added to wines. Even though it’s produced naturally during the winemaking process, it’s still something that could make somebody who doesn’t know this feel uneasy.

Claiming that a wine is sulphite-free appeals to those who are wary of having unwanted chemicals in their bodies. As cynical as it is, the sulphite-free label is often used as a marketing gimmick to appeal to a very specific niche of customers.

But let’s say you don’t buy into the sulphite-free concept.

Are there benefits to having reduced levels of sulphite in your wine.

Honestly, the jury is still out on that one. Those who drink natural wines will tell you that they’re less likely to get hangovers than when they used to drink regular Italian wines. The supposed idea here is that it’s sulphites that cause hangovers because they spark headaches in the drinker. 

There may be some truth in this. After all, sulphites are also used in the production of beer, which will also give you a hangover if consumed to excess.

Still, we need more studies on this before we can say for sure.

People will tell you that the lower levels of chemicals like sulphite allow them to experience the natural qualities of the wine, particularly in regards to mineral notes that are indicative of the terroir.

However, sulphites are added to wine for a reason.

As with any natural product, bacteria have a habit of making things go bad. Specifically, the bacteria that grows in untreated wine can give it a cloudy texture and, ultimately, lead to it turning into vinegar a lot quicker than a wine that contains sulphites. In fact, it’s sulphites that kill these bacteria, which is why it’s used to improve a wine’s longevity.

The Final Word

So, there really is no such thing as a sulphite-free wine, no matter what the marketing materials may tell you. Sure, there are producers who try to keep the levels as low as they possibly can. But the fact that sulphites occur naturally as part of the winemaking process means that it’s impossible to get rid of them altogether.

However, this does not mean that you shouldn’t consider giving natural Italian wines a try.

The anecdotal evidence about headaches is compelling, as is the idea of experiencing a wine that’s a more natural representation of the terroir.

But ultimately, sulphites are not something that you need to fear when buying an Italian wine. And they’re certainly not something that you can avoid, regardless of how natural the wine is.

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