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Wine

Preserving the truth on sulphates in wine

Recently, one of our members, Penny Bamford, got in touch to ask about preservative 220, which you might have seen listed on the back label of bottle of wine. She wanted to know whether it can cause allergic reactions and whether it’s used in organic and biodynamic wine.

Tasting Panellist Dave Mavor came to the rescue with an explanation.

The main preservative used in wine is sulphur dioxide, which you’ll see on the label as ‘preservative 220’, ‘minimal sulphur dioxide added’ or ‘contains sulphites’. Sulphur dioxide is added in the winemaking process to protect the wine from oxidation and bacterial spoilage.

I can tell you that the sulphur dioxide used in winemaking is less than many other products (e.g., dried fruits, some beer, meat, etc.) that we consume every day. It has been used as a preservative in wine since Roman times. And don’t be fooled into thinking that because preservatives aren’t listed on European wines that they’re not present, it’s just that they don’t have the same strict labelling laws as Australia. The amount of sulphur dioxide winemakers are allowed to add is strictly controlled to a limit of 250 milligrams per litre.

With such low levels it is unlikely to cause any health issues, however, some people feel they are quite sensitive to it. If that is you, here are some tips:

  • There tends to be higher levels of sulphur dioxide added to white wines as they are more susceptible to oxidation, whereas the tannins in red wines act as a natural preservative. If you have symptoms from drinking red wine, it’s more likely to be from the histamines.
  • Age also affects the sulphur dioxide levels in a wine, as it dissipates over time, so if you’re sensitive to sulphur dioxide, go for older wines.
  • There is less sulphur dioxide used in organic and biodynamic wines. Certification allows 50 per cent of what can be used under conventional standards.
  • Preservative-free wines don’t have sulphur dioxide added, however, it can also be a natural product of fermentation and is therefore often present even if it hasn’t been deliberately added. Also, without added preservatives, the wine will be very susceptible to spoilage by oxidation, so it needs to be consumed straightaway – which is not a bad thing.

You might have noticed the recent emergence of products that claim to remove the sulphur dioxide from your wine. Dave explains that these are simply made up of diluted hydrogen peroxide. While this is a chemical sometimes used in the winery when too much sulphur has been accidently added to a wine, it’s extremely controlled by winemakers with a thorough understanding of the chemical process. Remember that if you add too much hydrogen peroxide to a wine it will go off and you will have spoilt all the winemaker’s hard work!

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Biodynamic – going beyond organic
Words by Jackie Macdonald on 5 Apr 2016
If someone told you that filling a cow’s horn with dung and planting it at a certain phase of the moon would help your vines to grow, you’d probably think they were bonkers. Far out it may indeed sound, but this is one of the central steps in biodynamics, a form of organic viticulture that’s being embraced by an increasing number of Australian wineries. While it might sound like a theory cooked up by modern hippies, biodynamics actually has its origins in Europe over 90 years ago. Let’s set the scene. It’s 1924 in Silesia, Germany (now part of Poland) and a group of farmers has gathered to hear a series of lectures by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. The farmers are looking for an alternative to chemical fertilisers, which they believe have caused extensive damage to their soil and brought poor health to their livestock and crops. Steiner proves sympathetic as he reveals a system of agriculture that shuns chemicals and treats the farm as an individual, self-contained entity. Rather than focus on the health of individual plants, Steiner’s system teaches that good health requires that the entire eco-system in which the plant exists be thriving. This includes the other plants, the soil, the animals and even the humans who are working the land. The system he describes he calls biodynamics. By taking away all artificial fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, Steiner presented one of the earliest models of organic farming. However, it’s the next steps that really separate biodynamics from organics (and it’s at this point that I imagine some of the listening farmers’ eyebrows began to rise). Steiner claims that for this environment to truly blossom, a series of field and compost preparations needs to be added. These preparations, nine in total, are man-made solutions, derived from nature, that are labelled 500 through to 508. To the conventional farmer, these preparations may appear somewhat far-fetched. For example, ‘500’ is made by filling cow horns with cow manure, which are then buried over winter to be recovered in spring. A teaspoon of the manure is then mixed with up to 60 litres of water, which is stirred for an hour, whirled in different directions every second minute. ‘501’ also requires a cow horn, this time filled with crushed quartz. It is buried over summer and dug up late in autumn, then mixed the same way as 500. Stretching his credibility even further in the eyes of the pragmatic farmer, Steiner brings a spirituality to his teachings by suggesting the growth cycles of the farm are influenced by astrological forces. Decisions such as when to spray the preparations, when to weed and when to pick should all be made according to a calendar that details the phases of the moon and stars. “Hocus-pocus!” you may very well cry. Not so, according to the ever-increasing number of wine producers in Australia and internationally who have embraced biodynamics. Choosing an environmentally sustainable approach to viticulture is obviously to be applauded in these times of climate crisis. However, talk to biodynamic producers and you’ll find that superior wine quality is the number one motivation for being biodynamic. At South Australia’s Cape Jaffa, the Hooper family has been using biodynamic principles for many years and their conviction in its effectiveness is complete. “We believe that cultivating the vines in this way is what allows them to achieve balance within their environment. Achieve balance, and the vines are able to fully express themselves – leading to a wine that bares a true and remarkable resemblance to its environment,” says Derek Hooper. The Buttery family of Gemtree in McLaren Vale are also converts. Since their biodynamic beginnings in 2007 they say they can now “see a noticeable difference in the health of our vineyard and quality of our fruit.” A fellow McLaren Vale winemaker, David Paxton of Paxton wines says, “Biodynamics is the most advanced form of organic farming. It uses natural preparations and composts to bring the soil and the vine into balance, resulting in exceptionally pure and expressive fruit.” The proof is in the tasting, however, so next time you’re looking for a new wine to try, why not put biodynamics to the test and see if you can taste the natural difference?
Two Blues Sauvignon Blanc 2014
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