NAP or No Added Preservative wines, and low sulphite wines are a hot topic at the moment. Unfortunately the more they’re discussed the more confusion seems to be created. Off License News has just published an article on the subject of sulphites in wine and it’s clear that whoever wrote it doesn’t understand the first thing about the problem.

It’s written as if the people who want to find low sulphite or sulphite free wines to drink are doing it just to be awkward, like somebody at your dinner party announcing at the last minute that they’re a vegan! The truth is these sulphites trigger reactions in a minority of people which can be fatal, and having experienced it first hand I don’t think it’s something which should be trivialised by ill informed wine journalists. My partner Jane has been sulphite intolerant since 1999 and that is how we’ve come to do so much research on the subject. This intolerance (not our research!) has nearly cost her life on several occassions. These same sulphites killed 30 people in the USA in the 1970s who ate from a salad bar infused with sulphites to prevent the lettuce from discolouring, which led to the American government bringing in legislation that any food product containing more than 10 parts per million must state ‘contains sulphites’ on the label. Australia is now at the forefront in the world imposing legisation on the sulphite issue.

Big business elsewhere is happy to brush this problem under the carpet as sulphites (E-numbers E220 to E229) are present in a huge variety of foods, and the financial implications of a major health scare would be extremely damaging.

Let’s sort out the confusion

It’s really not that complicated to understand the basics and then avoid wines high in sulphites. Please bear with me if things get a little technical, it will all be made clear in the end. The problem and confusion lies with the myriad of differing ill informed opinions and poorly written incomplete articles. Plus of course the similar names of sulphites, sulphides and sulphates, and the difference between ‘free sulphur’ and ‘bound sulphur’. I will now explain the basics to make it clear for everyone who uses this site.

Wines are produced all over the world and although most regions try to set common standards, legislation does vary from country to country. Basically ALL WINES (with an absolutely tiny minority in some countries with wines under 10ppm) must have, by law, ‘contains sulphites’ on their label. This is because Sulphites, in tiny quantities, are a natural bi-product of the fermentation process.  The potentially dangerous sulphites are the ones which are added to the wine as ‘free sulphur’  at various stages of it’s production, sometimes in powder form (potassium bisulphate), sometimes as a gas (sulphur dioxide) and occassionally dissolved in the wine itself in liquid form. The purpose of this free sulphur is to react with any oxygen before the oxygen can react with (and spoil) the wine. It also inhibits the growth of bacteria which could also potentially spoil the wine. It’s also useful in controlling the process of malolactic fermentation where malic acid is transformed into lactic acid. In some wines a certain amount of malolactic fermentation can be desirable, it all depends on the grapes’ natural acidity, fruit quality and sugar content, and of course the style of wine being produced. This can be very confusing for those of us without a master’s degree in chemistry. This sulphure dioxide (SO2) can exist in different molecular forms, known as sulpite, bisulphite or molecular SO2, depending on the acidity of the wine and the temperature during fermentation. Thus a temperature controlled (28 degree) grape must with high acidity will have a completely different split of the three SO2s than a wine fermented in warmer temperatures with lower acidity. Confused yet?

So to make a wine without adding sulphur is actually quite difficult because you have to tackle these problems in other ways, and this can be time consuming and expensive. The biggest problem is oxidation – the wine reacting with oxygen present and discolouring and developing a stale taste. In red wines this can be overcome as red wines contain natural anti oxidants in the form of tannins derived from the the grape skin. (Alcohol is also very useful as an anti oxidant). Whites and roses don’t have this ability so they need far more sulphur than quality reds to prevent this reaction. Good quality fruit, ripe, with good acidity is a also a natural defense as is temperature controlled fermentation. Unfortunately the cheap brands start off with cheap, poor quality fruit and subsequently are fighting an uphill battle – at least they would be if they bothered fighting it. Instead they’re quite happy to splash in the sulphur and let us all suffer with horrendous hangovers every time we have a bottle of their wine!

These poor quality brands have dominated the UK wine market in the off trade (supermarkets and national chains) for years and many people accept this is what wine actually tastes like. They also assume their hangover is due to the alcohol – no, it’s due to these chemicals. I can comfortably drink 2 bottles of good wine without even an inkling of feeling rough the next day. Give me one glass of a mass produced brand – or a couple of pints of UK brewed lager – and I wake up with a banging headache because of the chemicals.

Most producers and wine journalists think that the handful of wineries making ‘no added sulphur’ wines are all ‘mad professor types’  just being awkward for the sake of it. Jane, on the other hand, will tell you they’re not!

Which wines are safe for sulphite intolerant people to drink?

No added sulphur wines of course, but a good low sulphur wine should also be safe for a sulphite intolerant person. By law a wine can contain up to 350 parts per million of sulphites, and the vast majority of cheap branded wines are right up there around the limit. (One Shiraz tested recently in Australia had a massive 10 times the legal limit!) This is because the initial fruit is poor quality, the methods are mechanised for mass production and they’re driven by keeping costs down. A low sulphur wine needs care and attention, good quality grapes, hand picking, hand sorting, more expensive bottling procedures, constant monitoring, and all this costs money.

There are low sulphite wines around from family owned wineries who take pride in the wines they produce. The grapes are hand picked and the wine made with care, expertise and dedication. Many of these only have very minimal sulphur added and have a total sulphur content – this is the total of both harmless ‘bound sulphur’ AND ‘free sulphur’ – of less than 100 parts per million. Many are below 50 ppm – that’s 85% less sulphur than a branded wine! The problem is the amount of sulphur content is not stated on the label.

So, how do you find low sulphite wines?

The best place to find these wines is a website devoted to top quality, award winning, low sulphite wines, bringing together the best wines from different countries around the world. Virtually every one of their 400 plus wines is hand made by small family wineries, with real pride in producing the best wine possible from their natural ingredients with a firm focus on quality. Sounds expensive? Well, no it’s not. Good wines cannot be produced at artificially low supermarket prices, but they don’t have to cost the earth either. Sadly with the weak pound and ill thought out duty schedule on alcohol, a decent bottle of wine has shifted from £6 to £10, and a really good bottle from £15 upwards.  To ensure you get good value try ,they’re also the cheapest prices in the UK for virtually every wine they sell. Every wine on their site has been tasted by them. They write their own genuine tasting notes (not some ‘gooseberry and raspberry’ nonsense off the back label). And it’s ALL good wine. If the wine isn’t good enough for them to drink personally, it doesn’t get listed on the site. Jane is intolerant to sulphites so she tests the wines and rates them on sulphite content herself – a hard job she says, but someone has to do it! All wines are kept in stock ready for next working day delivery. There’s no minimum order and you can mix and match any quantity of any wines you like.

If you want to drink wine low in sulphites this is THE place to buy them