As part of the winemaking process, sulphur enjoys a rich and illustrious history, with its use traced all the way back to the Romans, when it was praised for its antioxidant and antibacterial attributes, as it still is today.
Back in ancient times, however, its use was reserved solely for cleaning wine containers, whereas these days it’s become standard practice to include sulphite doses in vinification, conditioning the entire process from start to finish to ensure stability, prevent oxidation and reduce the potential for spoilage.
When it comes to noticing the effects of these sulphites in the wine in your glass, it’s likely that you won’t spot it until your palate becomes sensitive to them… which will happen if you start drinking more natural wine, which features little to no sulphite use in the manufacturing whatsoever.
The next time you have a bottle of mass produced wine on the table, see if you can taste a certain astringent quality. Look out for simplified textures and flavours. Do you find the wine appetising or would you prefer not to drink any more?
These are all signs that excessive sulphite doses have been used - and it’s likely that the more natural wine you enjoy, the less tolerance you’ll have for sulphites.
Now, since sulphur dioxide is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, even natural wine will contain some sulphites, but purist vignerons intent on producing entirely natural wines will strive to ensure that no further sulphites are used during manufacturing, mainly because they believe the end result simply tastes better without.
Natural winemakers also typically leave more CO2 in their products because this serves as a useful antioxidant, which can be particularly beneficial when avoiding the use of sulphites.
In order to reduce the need for additional sulphite use, there are various vineyard practices that can be employed that will serve to increase the acidity and antioxidant levels in the grapes, with winemakers having to be very hands on in the vineyard, during the harvest and in the winery to ensure that quality isn’t compromised.
Healthy microbes from the vineyard are needed to help strengthen native yeasts, but sulphites can kill these off if you’re not careful, so great care and precision must be taken by vignerons at all points during the process.
For natural winemakers, the tradeoff of not using sulphites is that although wine production may not be as consistent the wine itself can be far more aromatic, making it a much more pleasant drinking experience overall.
One point to make serious note of, however, is that producing wines with no added sulphite is a much harder, far more arduous process, so always err on the side of caution and be particularly suspicious of cheap bottles you see on shop shelves. They may not be quite what they seem, after all.