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A good wine or a bad one without sulphites?

May 25, 2024 Tags: 0 comments
I just returned from another wine fair - another tour de force, another exhausting two days of tastings.

At the end of the event, one of the girls working there, seeing how tired I was, said, "At the beginning, I thought you were lucky, getting invited to taste wine. I couldn't think of a better job. But now, after seeing your face and the amount of wine you tasted over the two days, I'm not so sure I’d like to be in your shoes."

Over two days, I tasted over 200 wines, starting soon after breakfast and continuing until sunset. I moved from one producer to another, from one region to another, encountering a plethora of interesting wines that I hope to import, at least some of them. Many of these wineries were new to me - with the younger generation taking over their grandparents' vineyards and deciding to bottle their grapes instead of selling them - some micro, some small, some slightly bigger, but all family owned and spanning three or four generations of vine growers.

Amongst the wines I tasted, some were from centuries old vineyards. Typically, a vineyard is replanted every 50 or so years because older vines produce lower yields, making them commercially unviable. However, the grapes and the resulting wines from these old vines are exceptional. With great joy, I sampled quite a few of them.

However, I also tasted wines I did not like. Some were the result of winemaking decisions I disagreed with, but there was one winery in particular whose wines I found particularly poor. They were marketed as "natural," which confirmed that people still drink bad wine simply because it's labelled as such. I have previously written on my blog about poorly made natural wines at the start of the “natural wine” trend and the difficulty of finding good ones. I believe that ultimately, wine should be a pleasure to drink, not a medicinal chore, independently on how they are obtained, but these wines were different, they would not fit the definition of “natural wine” as it is now intended. These were wines obtained from organic grapes that follow a specific and unique wine making process that starts with washing the grapes before pressing and no sulphites are added before they are bottled.

While washing the grapes does not impact the final wine unless the grapes are crushed or damaged during the process, not adding sulphite can have a massive impact.

Sulphites are widely used in the food industry as preservatives due to their antioxidant and sanitizing properties, which inhibit microbiological activity. They are also a natural byproduct of yeast activity during fermentation, meaning that if alcoholic fermentation occurs, sulphites will inevitably be present and any wine with more than 10 mg/L of SO2 must display the ‘Contains Sulphites’ warning. In practice, this means virtually all wines, as fermentation almost always produces SO2 beyond that threshold. To reduce the use of sulphites, it's crucial to ensure the grapes are intact and undamaged during harvesting.

However, sulphites tend to diminish over time, with the rate depending on factors such as the type of wine, storage conditions, and initial sulphite levels. If no additional sulphites are added and the grapes are organically grown, the initial sulphite levels are low. Waiting a few years before releasing the wine can reduce sulphite levels below 10 mg/L, eliminating the need for a warning label. However, the lack of the warning, do not guarantee the quality of the wines and the wines I tasted were of poor quality and expensive, I found that the wines had all passed their prime - they were all oxidated.

The current vintages were a few years old, which is likely the reason for their very low sulphite content. I wouldn't drink them, but according to the winemaker, the low sulphite content was why people were buying them. They were buying into the idea of a natural wine without realizing that the same or similar effect could be achieved by purchasing an average organic wine now and storing it for a few years, without paying a premium.
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