When wine attacks: sulphur, not indiscretion, may be the cause

Food—Wine

Food—WineThere has been a sharp increase in requests for organic and sulfur free wines; so much so that here at Grapes & Grains we have a new section dedicated to natural wines produced with organic or biodynamic fruit processed with little or no sulfur.

So what is natural wine? Some of the key components of natural wines include: organic or biodynamically grown fruit picked by hand; indigenous yeasts; little to no fining or filtering agents; and low to zero sulfur additions. If ingredients were listed on the bottle, the most natural wines would have one ingredient: wine grapes. For a wine to be labeled as natural, it must be vinified as genuinely as possible. This means that after the fruit has been grown organically or biodynamically, it must be processed with minimal use of additives and technological manipulations in the winery. Examples of some common additives cleared for use in most wineries include:  sugar, acidifiers, yeast, powdered tannins, enzymes and fining agents. Some technological manipulations include the use of mechanical harvesters to pick fruit, spinning cones that are able to remove alcohol, or micro-oxygenation tanks, which accelerate aging. In addition to being made with little to no sulfur, natural wines may not be acidified or deacidified, chaptalized, oxygenated, or dosed with cultivated yeast.

Sulphur is one ingredient in most conventionally produced wines that can trigger allergic reactions. According to a paper published by Michael Kerr in May of 2012, “sulfites are the ninth most common food allergen (behind milk, egg, peanuts, tree nuts, wheat, soy, fish and shellfish.)” When reporting adverse reactions to sulfur, most wine-drinkers will often complain of headaches, rashes, itchiness and redness of the skin. While sulfites are a natural compound found in all grapes, almost all winemakers add additional doses of sulfur to their wines once the fruit is picked. With so many adverse consumer reactions to sulfur, it’s important to understand when and why sulfur might be added to wine. While there is little regulation other than the concentration of sulfur that a winemaker may add at one specific time, there are some key moments during the wine making process when sulfur is often added to the fruit, fermenting juice or wine:

•    When the fruit is being picked, often by a mechanical harvester, damaged berries may cause the juice to oxidize. Spraying a sulfur solution on the fruit as it is being collected can retard oxidation and prevent the resulting wine from browning.
•    When the crushed fruit or pressed juice is going to be inoculated with a commercial strain of yeast, a sulfur solution will often be added to the fermentation vessel. Indigenous yeast are much more sensitive to sulfur than commercial yeast. By inhibiting the growth of natural yeast, a conventional winemaker can give his or her chosen yeast a less competitive environment in which to grow.
•    As primary fermentation is ending, wine is moved to a vessel in which it will age. Primary fermentation occurs when yeast consume sugar and release carbon dioxide and alcohol. Secondary fermentation occurs when malolactic bacteria consume malic acid converting it into softer lactic acid; usually begining as primary fermentation is ending. In order to preserve acidity and fruity aroma compounds, a conventional winemaker may choose to inhibit the secondary fermentation by adding a liberal dose of sulfur to the aging vessel at the end of primary fermentation.
•    At bottling: even natural winemakers may take this final moment to add a small dose of sulfur to their wine.  One of a winemaker’s biggest fears is that his or her wine may begin fermenting again after it has been bottled. In order to prevent a microbial bloom after bottling, conventional winemakers often fine, filter and add heavy doses of sulfur at bottling.

Rather than adding sulfur, natural winemakers choose other techniques to prevent oxidation or spoilage of their wines:

•    Harvesting by hand and transporting fruit in small bins can prevent crushed berries and oxidized fruit.  Natural winemakers also rush their fruit into the winery to begin fermentation immediately after harvest.
•    Even though native yeasts can take much longer to complete a fermentation than their super-charged cousins, natural winemakers consider the individual character and expression of terroir that natural yeast are able to capture well worth the wait. By avoiding sulfur additions and by maintaining optimal temperatures for microbial growth, natural winemakers are able create ideal environments for natural fermentation.
•    Once a wine has completed its secondary fermentation, there are very little nutrients or food sources left in the wine for the remaining microbes. Natural winemakers encourage secondary fermentation in all of their wines because it yields a much more stable product.
•    At bottling many natural winemakers will choose to eschew sulfur additions entirely while others may add a “homeopathic” dose to protect their wines during transit or on an occasion when sugar remains in the wine.

There are several different standards which determine how much sulfur may be added at bottling for a wine to be marketed as natural, but it is safe to assume that natural wines will generally have at least 50% less sulfites in the bottle than a conventionally produced wine.

Ready to try a natural wine? If you are looking for something new, try an earthy and fleshy Gamay produced by Les Chardons in the Touraine; or a brooding and dark Cru Beaujolais, grown in volcanic soil and produced by Philip Jambon. You could also rediscover intense, old vine Chenin blanc, called Bezigon, fermented in neutral oak foudres by JC Garnier. Regardless of whether you are sensitive to sulfites or not, these are wines that are sure to leave you feeling good.

Christin Aarons,  CSW, AAS is the Wine Buyer at Grapes & Grains fine wine, craft beer, and small-batch spirits shop in Barrington. Any questions, comments or suggestions on the Monthly Wine Review?  Email Christin at Caarons@grapesandgrainsri.com.

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