It is our aim here to help and educate people who may be suffering from an intolerance to sulphites. Different people have different levels of tolerance and experience different symptoms. If you believe you are intolerant to sulphites you are advised to seek professional medical help.
Natural Wines explained……
A guide to sulphite free wine, no added sulphite wine, free from wine, preservative free wine, NAS wine, NAP wine, EU certified organic wine, biodynamic wine and USA certified organic wines.
As you can see there are plenty of different terms and it is a confusing issue for many people so we are explaining the subject in depth here. We have decided to do it in a question and answer format so you can go straight to the question which is relevant to you.
The definitions :
Sulphite free and Preservative free wine – wines containing no more than 10 mg/l total sulphites, and 5 mg/l free sulphites.
NAS and NAP Wines (no added sulphite/preservative) – wines with no sulphites added.
EU Certified Organic Wines – wines conforming to (and certified by) the EU’s very lax organic standards.
Biodynamic Wines – Organic wines with a holistic approach following the methods of Rudolf Steiner, certified by Demeter
USA Certified Organic Wines – Organic wines with no sulphites added.
Natural Wines – No official classification, but generally wines made in a healthy manner with minimal if any additives and manipulation.
Is wine good or bad for me?
Both. Good wine is very good for you. Mass produced wine on the other hand can be very bad for you.
Good wines with very low amounts of (if any) additives contain substances which are very beneficial to your health such as natural anti oxidants like resveratrol. These can actively and significantly reduce your likelihood of contracting cancer, lower your blood pressure, reduce your bad cholesterol, increase your good cholesterol, reduce your chance of a heart attack or stroke, and reduce your likelihood of diabetes, dementia (by 50%) or Alzheimer’s. Dr Phil Norrie MBBS, MA, MSc, MSocSc (Hons), PhD, MD wrote a fascinating article on the subject which I will happily email to anybody who would like to read it.
Unfortunately the UK is flooded with poor quality wines which are mass produced in factories from low grade fruit. These grapes have usually already had huge doses of chemical fertilisers and pesticides on them, been coated with potassium metabisulphite powder at the picking stage when harvested by machine into wagons, then there are over 80 different additives permitted at the winemaking stage! Plus, if the wine is shipped from country of origin in a bladder like those used to ship crude oil so it can be bottled more cheaply in the UK, it will have had an extra large dose of sulphites added at shipping as these bladders are permeable and let in the air. Sulphites are the most notorious of additives and have been strongly linked to causing cancer, particularly of the throat and stomach. It is a popular misconception that the hangover is caused by the alcohol – this is not true. The hangover is caused by the chemicals in the alcoholic drink, and there is no reason why you can’t drink a whole bottle of natural wine and feel absolutely fine – we do, all the time. If you drink a bottle of wine and it gives you a hangover, it is because it is packed with chemicals – and if it makes you feel that bad what damage must it be doing to your health?
The health studies that most European governments base their “recommended units” on are completely flawed. The most notable, the ten year study across Europe on 10,000 people for example, omly recorded the number of units of alcohol drunk, not what these people actually consumed! So one person may have drunk natural wine while another drank a heavily processed wine, or a completely artificial RTD (alcopop) which is just a concoction of processed chemicals. Cancer rates are much lower around the Meditieranean than in the UK, because people eat and drink natural products which are fresh and not preserved with sulphites.
What is the healthiest wine to drink?
Sulphite free wine is the healthiest wine available. Winemakers who choose not to use sulphites do so because they believe passionately in making natural healthy wines. It is very difficult to make sulphite free wines, very time consuming and financially risky as one mistake could ruin the entire production. If they don’t add sulphites they won’t be adding any other nasty chemicals either. Plus they leave all the natural goodness in there with only a very light filtering if any. So not only are sulphite free wines not bad for you (like processed wines), they are actually very good for you.
Is organic wine healthy and low in sulphites?
Some of it is, but sadly some of it isn’t! And it isn’t easy to tell from the label which is which.
The EU recently changed it’s legislation and introduced a new category “EU Certified Organic Wine”. Sadly the rules for this are so lax that the certification is virtually worthless, and there is no differentiation between the genuine natural wines and those at the top of the limits. For example these EU Certified Organic wines are permitted to contain a whopping 150 mg/l of sulphites for dry white wines, and 100 mg/l for reds. Much more for sweet wines, and all are permitted to exceed these levels by an extra 50 mg/l if the producer “feels it necessary”. Then there are around 40 different additives permitted like Di-Ammonium Phosphate, Potassium Tartrate, Calcium Sulphate. Plus the addition of tartaric acid (which is a big no no for me personally). And questionable winemaking techniques are also permitted such as reverse osmosis – a high pressure filtration system which removes all the particles from the wine, which contain all the flavour and goodness. What is left after all that doesn’t seem very “organic” to me.
Our EU organic wines are the real deal, made properly by passionate family producers who live organic lives. Not the commercial organic brands who produce heavily manipulated wines then use the “organic” tag to market them to people looking for healthy wines. We try to list the free sulphite content of each of these wines for you, and they are all extremely low.
USA Certified Organic wines are also the real deal. In the USA they are not allowed to add sulphites (to organic wines) and a recent proposal by the government to permit them was defeated in 2014 by a group of organic producers!
I’ve heard there is no such thing as a sulphite free wine
This is not true. There are plenty of “experts” posting blogs on the internet who are publishing contradictory stories and this is confusing for most people. Some say that as sulphites are produced naturally by the yeast during fermentation (in tiny amounts) that no wine can be sulphite free.
However we sell some wines from Frey in California which have on their laboratory reports “no sulphites detected”. This is using the best equipment available which can detect as low as two parts per million. I know Johnathan Frey uses an organic yeast that they cultivated themselves, and possibly this doesn’t produce sulphites as a bi-product of fermentation.
There is also legislation both in the EU and USA (agreeing with each other for once) where a wine is regarded as being sulphite free if the Free SO2 is no greater than 5 parts per million AND the Total SO2 is no greater than 10 parts per million – please note it has to satisfy both of these conditions, then it is not required to have the words “contains sulphites” on the label. It was brought to my attention by the Wine Standards Board that this is not technically a legal definition though.But it is a common sense definition, helpful and informative to people with allergies searching for sulphite free wines so we continue to use it.
Either way, whether some of these wines are totally sulphite free or not, for the purposes of the consumer they can be treated as completely sulphite free as they will not trigger an allergy and any naturally occurring sulphite present is in such small quantity that it is harmless.
The danger comes from the added sulphites which are a man made compound, and added in large amounts. Hence somebody with a sulphite allergy could drink a “no added sulphite” wine which does technically contain a very small amount of naturally occurring sulphites.
I’ve been told if I think I’m sensitive to sulphites I should eat some dried fruit to find out (as it contains a lot of sulphites)
NO! This is an absolutely ridiculous thing to suggest and just shows how ignorant of the problem many medical professionals, and wine trade professionals are.
Very basically there are two “forms” of sulphite you need to be aware of – the FREE SO2 and the BOUND SO2 (which together make up the TOTAL SO2).
Technically the free SO2 consists of three forms – sulphite (SO32-), bisulphite (HSO3-) and molecular SO2 (SO2), which is directly relevant to winemakers as it is the active anti oxidant part and quantity is directly related to temperature and PH of the wine. We consumers don’t need to know about these technicalities, only the Free SO2 figure.
Free SO2 (usually in the form of potassium bisulphite) is added to wine to perform various tasks but the primary one is as an anti oxidant. The Free SO2 seeks out oxygen molecules (and other substances such as sugars but we can ignore those for now) in the wine before they can oxidise and ruin the wine. This Free SO2 binds to the oxygen and becomes “bound” and inert. The winemaker calculates how much he needs to add to remove the oxygen present, then adds a bit more to be on the safe side. Once all the oxygen is bound the remaining Free SO2 is measured and recorded on the wine’s laboratory analysis.
The Total SO2 content is obviously the total of the Free SO2 and the Bound SO2, and it is the Total SO2 which is regulated by the organic and biodynamic standards. BUT it is the Free SO2 which triggers the allergic reaction in people and this is the magic number you need to know.
Back to the dried fruit – because it is so high in sugars which bind to Free SO2 virtually all the sulphites in it will be bound, so it isn’t likely to trigger a reaction. Hence “eating some dried fruit” won’t help you discover if you have an allergy! But even if it could, advising somebody to eat something they think they are allergic to is stupid advice.
Is Biodynamic wine low in sulphites?
Sadly no, not in the sense we need it to be anyway. The Total SO2 in Biodynamic wines is limited to 90 parts per million. But the Free SO2 is likely to be just as high as any other wine and sulphite sensitive people can be caught out here. Jane was, and had a really bad reaction to the top Biodynamic wine from Reyneke in South Africa. After we discussed this with them they told us they aim to leave 35ppm Free SO2 in the wine which is simply too high. Some Biodynamic wines do have very low sulphite content but again you can’t tell this from the label, so unless you know the wine you need to be careful. We try to publish the all important Free SO2 figures for our wines wherever we can.
Many mainstream wines will contain well over 60 mg/l Free SO2, and we even heard of one Australian Shiraz which was found to contain over ten times the legally permitted level! If you have an allergy these would be potentially fatal for you, and even if you don’t have an allergy wines like this are extremely bad for you. We recommend sulphite allergic people to stick below 20 mg/l Free SO2. A little higher may be ok as different people have different tolerances, but it’s best to be safe.
I’ve heard sulphite free wine doesn’t keep.
Again absolute rubbish. There are a few mass produced No Added Sulphite wines available in the UK and it’s true these won’t last more than a few months in bottle (and they taste awful anyway!). This is because they are made cheaply from poor quality fruit on a large scale. Basically it’s poor quality wine.
To make good quality sulphite free wines (like the ones we sell) you need to start with perfect fruit and do everything by hand. They simply can’t be produced on a commercial basis. We’ve enjoyed sulphite free wines from Domaine Viret from 1999 and they were still in perfect condition. And Johnathan and Katrina Frey told us (September 2014) they had just opened a bottle of their Cabernet from 1984 which was superb.
Good wine is good wine, and is packed with natural anti oxidants. It doesn’t need sulphites.
I’ve heard two glasses of wine a day can give me cancer.
If you drink mass produced wines that is probably true. Sulphites have been “strongly linked” to causing cancer – they can’t prove they do as “proof” takes a long long time to establish.
But the Centre for Scientific Research in the Public Interest recommended banning sulphites in the 1970s, and the World Health Organisation has recommended “phasing them out”. Would they do that if they weren’t bad for you?
Drinking good wine every day can actually help you protect against cancer reducing your likelihood of contracting it as the natural anti oxidants block free radicals causing damage to the cell’s nucleus. The same anti oxidants reduce your likelihood of diabetes by as much as 50% as they reduce insulin resistance.
There are loads of health benefits from drinking GOOD wine. Mass produced wine is bad for you. Hand made good quality wine is VERY good for you.
If mass produced wine is so bad why is it everywhere in the UK?
The UK is known in the wine world as “the toilet of Europe” because all the countries get rid of their bottom end wines over here. Sadly this has historically been driven by price as the UK has some of the highest excise duty rates in the world and we currently pay close to 40% of all the excise duty of the entire EU! In fact 13 EU member states charge no duty at all on wine, whereas it is £2.16 per bottle over here, or around £2.76 for sparkling wine or £2.89 for anything over 15% abv. All plus VAT of course! So at the current average UK retail price of £5.07 the wine is virtually worthless – and tastes like it!
This section is well out of date now! Excise duty in the UK is currently (August 2023) £2.67 per 75cl bottle plus VAT of course. So a bottle of wine at £10 is about £4.25 in pure UK taxes.
Many of these wines consist of more chemicals than grape juice. At £5.07, £3.01 is tax and after the supermarket margin of 35% (£1.48) that leaves just 58p to pay for the bottle, the label the screwcap, international transport and domestic transport – oh, and the wine itself! And remember this is the average price of all wine sold retail in the UK, so when you allow for all independent retailers like us, it means they must sell an awful lot at lower prices than this!
To keep prices low the wine is transported from the producing country in huge bladders and bottled over here. These bladders are permeable so the wine has to be dosed up with huge amounts of sulphites to survive the journey. Always check the back label on your wines and ALWAYS go for a wine that was bottled at source – it has to state this info on the label by law. If it just says “bottled by…” and then a code do not buy it! It will be awful.
The UK on-trade is also driven by price and dominated by several global companies so it is very difficult to find a drinkable wine in your local pub. It is a very sad state of affairs.
If you go to mainland Europe it is very easy to find a good local wine in a restaurant or bar which tastes great, doesn’t contain masses of chemicals and isn’t expensive.
What is the difference between your wines and wines from the supermarket or retail chain?
It’s simple. We sell handmade wines from small passionate family producers who take a real pride in their work. Their very success and survival depends on them making great wines. The multiples and general wine merchants sell wines produced on a large scale, often in industrial factories.
Wines made in factories on a large commercial scale start off from mediocre grade grapes at best. Why? Because the premium quality grapes sell for a premium price. The grape growing and harvesting is generally done by machine as it is significantly cheaper, but that means spraying in the vineyard with harmful pesticides, and damage to the fruit at harvest which means the truckloads of grapes get sprayed with sodium metabisulphite powder to stop any oxidation. These wines are usually exported to the UK in bladder not bottle which again means the addition of huge amounts of sulphites.
The supermarkets control about 85% of the wine retailed in the UK. The scale is enormous and that means it isn’t financially viable for them to look at any winery producing less than a million cases per year – so everything they sell is machine made and high in additives. They can sell 100,000 bottles of one wine in a day! We deal with some families who only make 10,000 bottles per year!
As this mass produced wine is made from poor fruit there is not enough natural acidity in the ferment so tartaric acid is then added along with a vast array of other chemicals (over 80 are permitted) to “rectify” the wine. It basically becomes a cocktail of additives with some wine in it.
The wineries we represent are generally very small. They tend their vines by hand and harvest by hand into small boxes to avoid damaging the fruit. They avoid using any additives which aren’t absolutely necessary, as they strive to make the best wine possible. Because their grapes are high quality they don’t need to rectify their wines with added sugars and acids.
While most of our wines are from very small family wineries we do also sell some from bigger producers such as the St Michael Eppan cooperative in Northern Italy. But these people are still a cooperative of passionate winemakers doing everything by hand with pride. There are a handful of cheaper wines on our site which we give a medium sulphite rating to. These are higher than we’d ideally like, usually because they’re made on a comparatively large scale by our standards, but even these are far lower in additives than any big brand or any wine you would find in a supermarket.
|Are there any wines which are healthy but not sulphite free or organically certified?
Yes, there are plenty of these, and we specialise in them. There is no way of knowing just from looking at the label though – one wine looks much like any other from the outside. But because we know the people making these we know how they are made.
What people think of these days as “organic” methods is quite simply just age old traditional methods. Up until recently there were no chemical fertilisers and pesticides, people just made their wines properly as their fathers had before them. There are still plenty of good winemakers out there doing exactly the same, perhaps using one or two modern techniques or additives where required but basically still making good wines the natural way.
Why aren’t they organically certified then? Well it costs a lot of money to be organically certified. You have to pay an annual fee to one of the quangos who police it. It also takes a lot of time, about seven years of the vineyards being chemical free.
As we have seen the EU Organic certification isn’t worth the paper it is written on. And for anybody outside the EU, the EU themselves put so many barriers in the way to block imports that it just isn’t worth doing. We were importing from Teillery in Chile and the constant costs, form filling, certificates and hassle just took all the profit and fun right out of it. It took me 9 months to get my first order here. Teillery make great organic wines but thanks to the burdensome EU regulations it wasn’t financially viable for us to keep importing them.
So I have switched to sourcing organic wines solely from within the EU – exactly what the EU hoped I and other wine merchants would do when they introduced all these regulations as it is major industry in Spain, Italy and France and they felt they were losing out to new world countries!
I’ve heard the sulphite allergy only affects 1% of the population and they are asthmatics.
This is absolute rubbish. You don’t need to be asthmatic to develop a sulphite allergy. And it affects far more than 1% of the population and from our experiences this is growing fast. We personally know people who have been drinking sulphite loaded wine (and other foods and drinks of course) for years, then one day found they had developed the allergy. These people tended to be around 40 years old.
Doctors have told us that it is the body’s way of stopping people continuing to poison themselves. Basically the body has had so many sulphites over the years that it says “no more”. If you have developed a sulphite allergy please don’t think that you are odd and there is something wrong with you – it is far more common than you think, and the fault lies with the heavily processed foods and drinks in the UK food chain.
In the Mediteranean they eat fresh food and drink young fresh wines made locally without these additives. And the UK has higher skin cancer rates! That is not to do with sunhine!
Should I be concerned about sulphites?
Yes, you should. Sulphites are everywhere in the UK diet as we consume a vast amount of heavily processed food and drinks.
As I mentioned earlier the Centre for Scientific Research in the Public Interest recommended banning sulphites in the 1970s (after a dozen people died from eating from the same salad bar sprayed with sulphites to keep it looking fresh!). The World Health Organisation has recommended phasing them out.
And next time you are in the supermarket read the back labels of some of their own label foods – you will note the vast majority of them now say something along the lines of “contains no artificial colours or preservatives”. Why would they do this? And why would they do it so quietly?
Finally, anybody in remission for cancer is told to cut sulphites out of their diet! No need to say any more!
Anybody who tells you that sulphites are harmless doesn’t know what they are talking about.