A rant about sulfites.
PSA: ALL NATURAL WINE CONTAINS SULFITES
The term “sulfite-free” is used as a marketing term to describe wines that have no ADDED sulfites. Sulphur dioxide is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process - therefore there is no natural wine that contains zero sulfites. Zero added sulfites, yes. Zero sulfites, no.
Acting as a preservative and antioxidant, sulfites inhibit bacterial contamination which can result in off flavors in wine. Unpopular opinion alert: I’d rather take a little pinch of sulphur over mouse, vinegar or acetone flavors in the glass. Yuck.
Too much harm has been done to the perception of Natural wine as being lower in quality and having unpredictable, wild (and honestly unfriendly) flavors in the name of zero/zero, dogmatic winemaking - and enough is enough! If you are dogmatic about sulphur, then you must be equally dogmatic about the vineyard, about farming, about fruit quality and winemaking hygiene. Until winemakers and wine sellers are fully committed to tossing a bad batch, instead of marketing messed up flavors as a tasting profile - we will continue to have turned off and untrusting drinkers. Until natural wine drinkers stand up and say a wine tastes bad instead of making excuses for flavor because a wine has a nice label and is on trend, winemakers won't be held accountable for the quality of their product. Please in the name of all that is good, normalize responsible sulfite use in natural wine if it's necessary to achieve an enjoyable product.
The truth is, many people associate natural wine with being sulfite-free, why you ask? The short answer is a whole lot of marketing (thanks, clean wine movement - we'll save that rant for another day) and the long answer is a little bit of science.
In the United States, conventional wines can have up to 350ppm (parts per million) of sulfites. Alternately, natural wines contain 100ppm or less (usually less than 50). But by law, anything above 10ppm must use the label “contains sulfites”. This doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve been added, and definitely doesn't mean to the same levels as conventional wine - it just means that sulfites exist. On the occasion that they have been added - natural winemakers use the most minuscule amount - a tiny fraction of that 350ppm max, which is why most natural wine contains considerably less sulfites in the resulting wine by comparison.
But are sulfites really the culprit everyone’s chalked them up to be? I say hell no. At least for 99% of you. Research has shown that only 1% of people have a sulfite allergy. So while there’s always a chance you’re a lucky allergic duck, if you can eat other fermented foods like pickles, sauerkraut or kimchi, dried fruit, eggs or even chocolate without a reaction - you’re not the 1% and the minimal sulfite use in natural wine won't cause you problems. Even in a conventional wine, it's unlikely the sulfites are to blame. That two-buck chuck hangover could just be sugar, a host of other chemicals used in high volume winemaking and farming or just plain old-fashioned dehydration. (No hate to two-buck chuck, you do you boo - but love on that body and drink some water with it).
So next time you pick up a bottle of wine in the shop and see the phrase “contains sulfites”, hold your horses with the zero/zero, dogmatic, sulfite rage. I promise it’s still a natural wine!