Sounds ominous, doesn't it? Which could explain why a growing number of consumers are pushing for a greater range of sulfite-free wine. Should you be taking note, or is it more hassle than it is worth for you and your vineyard? Tom Smart explores the science behind the warning label and the viability of sulfite-free/no added sulfites as an emerging market.
Ancient Rome. The historical epicentre of the wine-making revolution. As legend has it they couldn’t get enough of the stuff, be it red or white. There was however one major issue: it didn’t last long*.
Step forward some clever wine-makers who discovered that burning sulfur** candles inside of empty barrels made them more fit for purpose and prevented the wine spoiling so quickly once sealed inside. Sulfites had been discovered and they were such a revelation that they continued to be used for the next 2-3000 years.
While most wine-makers are no longer burning candles, sufites are still added to the overwhelming majority of wines as an anti-bacterial and anti-oxidising agent which extend the shelf-life of the product whilst adding a layer of predictability and stability to the process. So why, 3000-odd years after their first inclusion in the process, are they being touted as a problem?
One word: allergies.
In the U.S. the FDA estimate that around 1% of the population are sensitive to sulfites in some way, and that the level of reaction to their presence can vary. This represents a substantial number of people, particularly when those numbers are extrapolated globally.
So why isn’t everyone jumping on the bandwagon and creating such wines? We have already profiled the boom in vegan wine production and the emergence of the low-alcohol market. Could sulfite-free be the next growth market looking to save the wine industry?
Here at Brand Organic we aren’t so sure. Mainly because there are some major issues with creating sufite-free and/or low-sulfite wine.
Firstly, they are produced naturally in the fermentation process and so may potentially need to be removed in order to create a sulfite-free product. These are known as natural sulfites, and their removal could add a further level of processing and cost that would ultimately need to be passed onto consumers. Perhaps a ‘no added sulfites’ (NAS/NSA) wine would be easier? Perhaps not.
Addition of sulfites is regularly used to govern the end-point for fermentation, thus allowing exceptional control over the final alcohol content of the product. Omitting this step poses questions for skilled wine-makers that do not have obvious solutions.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the lack of preservative can also make the final product quite volatile. Alcohol oxidises to acid quite readily at ambient temperatures, so your chances of disappointing your customer with a bottle of vinegar increases dramatically when sulphites are not present. What this leads to is a shorter shelf life and a potential change in logistics in order to protect the product.
The use of sulfites is ingrained in many other food making processes, particularly where preservation is key. A quick web search shows just how difficult they are to avoid and for the most part, the foods on the list contain considerably more sulfites in parts per million (PPM) than your average class of claret. Dried fruit for example can get anywhere up to 3000PPM, whereas wine is limited to 350PPM in the U.S and 210PPM in Europe.
You probably knew a lot of this already***, so with a reasonable range of low-sulfite wines already on the market and the emergence of a product that claims to remove sulphites at the table, is this a production process worth getting into? We’ll leave that to you, but indicators show that vegan and low-alcohol markets are likely to undergo substantially greater growth over the next five years. If you are already making low-sulfite wine then you will know there is definitely a niche, however if you are looking to diversify your portfolio then there are probably other, more buoyant ones to consider first.
* Not, we are led to believe, because of high levels of alcoholism in the Roman population but because it spoiled quickly.
** If you find this spelling strange, please get used to it. It was left until the third incident to interject. For years scientists clashed over the use of ‘sulphur (British)’ vs. ‘sulfur (American)’. After a long and bitter war of words (well preserved, mildly exaggerated), sulfur was universally adopted moving forward. Cue the re-writing of many pieces of literature and a continual (again well preserved, mildly exaggerated) battle against tradition for many middle-aged European scientists and writers; this one included.
*** and apologies if you did.