This is a hot topic at the moment as more and more people are investigating the effects the sulphites in a bottle of wine have on them. I would say the issue is being deliberately clouded by the government and the big players in the industry, although I’m sure they would say they’re ‘doing all they can to help but it’s complicated’.

Basically there are two major points to make. The first is that sulphites occur in all wines and there is no such thing as a genuine sulphite free wine.

The second point is that there’s a huge difference between minimal amounts of naturally occurring sulphites as found in all wines, and the large amounts of additional sulphites added to inferior wines as a preservative.

However there’s no legislation to make the producers state the amount of sulphite a wine contains, so the wine consumer cannot tell from the label and as a result is buying the wrong wine. This is because it’s a multi billion pound industry and a huge earner for the UK government too. If wine had the same regulations applied to it as food currently does, there would be up to 40 different additives listed on the back labels of some of the major brands! The excuse for not doing so? ‘It’s complicated’ – ‘fair enough’ say the UK government and the EU which consists of several of the biggest wine producing countries in the world.

How can you tell if a wine contains added sulphites?

Quite simply, if you apply a bit of common sense you can avoid anything obviously heavy on sulphites. Firstly I’ll explain the problem, then give you the solution. Wine was traditionally made locally all over the world in small wineries, often no bigger than a shed or an outbuilding, by someone who owned a field planted with vines. Sulphites occur naturally in tiny quantities in grape skins and are also produced in small quantities during fermentation. So all wine contains a small amount of sulphites.

Now with globalisation, wine production has progressed onto a massive scale, made in sterile factories. This is BIG business. The big corporations need huge quantities of grapes, and driven by price these tend to be very poor quality. They’re then fermented and turned into poor quality wine. Up to 40 different chemicals and preservatives are then added to hold the wine together till it can get to market. Here the big companies are very clever – they spend next to nothing producing the wine but spend millions on marketing, producing an internationally recognised brand. Some of these wines actually consist of more chemical solution than grape juice!

Think about price for a moment. Our Chancellor charges £1.65 (excise duty and customs tax) on any wine commercially imported into the uk – plus vat on top of this, so a wine selling for £3.99 in a supermarket breaks down something like this:

£0.52 vat

£1.65 excise duty

£0.30 overseas transport

£0.30 packaging and labelling

£0.50 producer’s margin

£0.50 supermarket margin

£3.77 total cost leaving £0.22 for production of the wine! So how good do you expect that wine to be? I would expect it to be over 50% chemicals at this price!

Unfortunately as our Chancellor has increased excise duty by £0.36 per bottle of still wine under 15% abv (more on wines above this and on sparkling wines) in the last 18 months, and as the pound has weakened severely, the price of wine has rocketed. It used to be 3 for £10 on poor quality wine in the supermarket, and £6 a bottle for something reasonable. These price points have moved dramatically and it’s now difficult to find a good wine below £8 or so. And if you pay £5 per bottle in the supermarket you’re likely to get very poor, over chemicalled wine.

Basically, if you’re looking for decent quality wine low in chemicals avoid the supermarkets and multiple retailers. Avoid ALL big brands as advertised on TV. Not even the most successful family producers can afford this kind of advertising – think about it, it’s basic economics – every pound spent on advertising is a pound not spent on production! Also be prepared to spend around £8 per bottle – if money’s tight maybe reduce the quantity for better quality?

Where do I find good wine low in sulphites at the right price?

Thankfully there are many family owned producers still making excellent quality wines. It’s best to look for something from a smaller family owned winery with a good reputation who make their wines with pride. There are several good independent wine merchants out there who retail this kind of wine, and now thanks to the interweb it’s readily available to buy nationwide. specialise in award winning, low sulphite wines from all the major wine producing countries. As Jane suffers from a sulphite intolerance, they only sell good wines that they’re prepared to drink themselves! (there aren’t many wine merchants out there who can say that). They import some excellent wines from small, boutique family owned vineyards with the emphasis firmly on quality. They’re also extremely keen on price and are the cheapest UK retailer for virtually every wine they sell, so you really can’t go wrong. Add to that ‘next working day delivery’ and a clean and clear website with easy to understand genuine tasting notes (not just the text off the back label), and it’s easy to see why this business is booming in these uncertain economic times.