Nailed the dress code for your latest soiree? Tick! Memorised the postcode of Ryan Gosling’s Hollywood home? Double tick!
But what about the number codes on your beloved vino?
I’m talking about the preservative ‘codes’ on wine bottle labels, the most common one being Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), often referred to as Code 220 or ‘sulphites’. The use of some SO2 can be a very beneficial thing in wine production, so unless you have an intolerance or allergy there’s no need go totally ‘Preservative Free’ and chase down the kale-based green smoothie of the wine world.
Preservative free wine and the use of sulphur dioxide is, however, an expansive and contentious topic and getting to the bottom of it can feel like trying to crack the Da Vinci Code.
What is Preservative Free Wine?
Preservative free wine is a really a misnomer. This is because no wines are truly ‘preservative free’ as some sulphur dioxide will always be released during fermentation and acts as a natural preservative.
The term ‘preservative free’ is often used to mean that no preservatives have been added during the wine making process. So, if we are going to get down and dirty into the technicalities then ‘No Preservatives Added’ is more correct, and this terminology is used by some winemakers.
When talking about preservatives in wine it’s often sulphur dioxide that gets the negative airplay. This is where I have to stand up for the humble SO2 and let you know that this compound is hugely important and, unlike some other scary numbers that inhabit our food and wine world, shouldn’t be held with the same contempt.
Let me put it this way; a little sulphur dioxide is like Prince Charming riding on horseback (stay with me)…He has his sword in hand, protecting the oh-so-precious bottle contents and fighting off bacteria and oxidisation to ensure that the wine that reaches you is fresh and palatable.
Of course SO2 isn’t the only preservative used in wine. It is, however, generally the most effective and commonly used preservative.
Wine vs Dried Apricots
There is a mistaken belief that wine is overly high in sulphur dioxide.
The reality is, it’s not. Much higher amounts of sulphur dioxide are used to preserve fruits such as dried apricots and figs. To give you a comparison, most table wines tend to have around 100–150 ‘parts per million’ (ppm) of sulphur dioxide. Meanwhile, dried fruit, such as the unassuming dried apricot, can have up to 3,000 ppm.
So, if you are dissing a vino on the basis of Code 220, but you don’t hesitate to down a handful of dried apricots, you may like to think again about why you’re avoiding wine with added SO2.
Can’t you just check for what’s in the wine by looking at the label?
Erm….no. Not entirely anyway. The national regulatory authority, Wine Australia, requires that added sulphites in concentrations above 10 ppm, along with processing aids that include milk and egg, must be declared. However, the words ‘contains sulphites’ is enough to meet the labelling requirements without there being any obligation to name the actual sulphites used.
The majority of table wines contain around 150 ppm, yet a label that says ‘contains sulphites’ might only mean a teensy amount. Whilst this is handy in knowing that the wine contains some sulphites you often have no idea whether it has 12 ppm or 120 ppm. If you’re trying to find a wine that’s low in sulphites then you may need to do a bit of your own research, or tap the brain of your knowledgeable wine retailer who can point you in the right direction.
As for ‘preservative free’ this should only be claimed if there are no quantifiable levels of sulphur dioxide in the wine. Which, as we now know, is a rather difficult claim to make.
What about if it’s Certified Organic?
If all of this wasn’t already keeping you on your toes, in Australia, wines can be Certified Organic without being ‘preservative free’.
Most organic producers will, however, only use minimal sulphur dioxide and organic wines contain about 50% less sulphites than other commercial drops.
But Sulphites in Red Wine Gives Me Headaches!
I often hear that it’s those pesky sulphites in the red wine that cause headaches. Well, maybe, but research has shown that it’s unlikely to be the cause.
The most common allergic reaction to sulphur dioxide is asthma (wheezing, coughing, chest tightening) – not headaches.
If you can eat dried fruit or a pre-packaged supermarket fruit salad with no issues then chances are that you don’t have a sulphur intolerance or allergy. It has also been shown that there are actually very few people out there with genuine sulphite allergies or intolerances so it may be worth reflecting on the other possible causes of your wine woes.
A more likely culprit for creating red wine headaches are phenolics (also known as polyphenols). Phenolics come from the skins, stems and pips of grapes and find their way into wines when the skins are left to ferment. It’s these things that give the positive antioxidant properties in red wine, yet also can result in those nasty headaches. And just to close the loop on all this wine science, those tannins in red wine are polyphenols.
White wines can also cause issues as some people react to oak-derived phenolics (the polyphenols that result from the wine fermenting in oak barrels). This can also cause histamine production and can result in headaches.
Failing the sulphites and phenolics, there are many other factors that can play a part in the after effects of wine. Could it have been the fact you necked a bottle of red wine, ate no food and drank no water? Let’s not forget the alcohol content itself as a primary cause.
Which has more Sulphites? Reds or Whites?
As for reds being packed with ‘Code 220’ the reality is that red wines generally contain less sulphites than white wine. This is because the tannins in red wine (which come from extended contact with the grapes) contain natural sulphur dioxides, and this means that there’s generally less need to add it to the wine.
When producing white wines the grape skins are immediately removed after the grapes are crushed.
But I Still Want to Avoid Sulphites in my Wine!
If you’re still keen to avoid or minimise sulphites and preservatives in your wine, here’s a few things you can do:
- I hope I am preaching to the converted here but ditch that cask wine straight away. That’s right, leave it where it belongs, back in the 80’s with your slap bands and scrunchies. These wines are likely to contain increased amounts of sulphur dioxide.
- Hunt out wines with ‘minimal sulphites’ or ‘no added sulphites’. There are many excellent wines that contain only enough added sulphur to ‘hold’ the wine (so it doesn’t taste like vinegar).
- Go organic. Even though they can use sulphites, most organic wines contain a much lower sulphite concentration than typical commercial wine.
Five low preservative wines to try
The following wines have been sampled and researched as being low in sulphites or containing no added preservatives. Of course, please do your own research if you have a serious allergy.
Organic One – Blanc de Blanc NV, Billabong Creek (Australia)
Around $19 a bottle. Available from selected bottle shops and at www.organicwine.com.au.
A light set of bubbles with apple on the nose and a palate showing pear and citrus. There’s a lemon driven finish and a lingering dryness that leaves you salivating. A pleasant, light aperitif and a good quaffer that ticks the box if you want to have bubbles low in SO2. Enjoy alone or with some soft brie and prosciutto.
Cracking the code: Certified organic, minimum 220 added (natural gaseous form).
Quealy Amphora Fruliano 2011 Balnarring, Mornington Peninsula
Around $28 a bottle. Available from selected bottle shops and at www.quealy.com.au.
This Italian grape variety demonstrates a pronounced and interesting nose that is a little herbaceous and shows floral notes. The palate has great acidity with a little lime and a full mouth feel. Finishes long. Interestingly, this wine is partially fermented and matured in amphora vessels which allow some release of oxygen. A crisp accompaniment that expresses itself beautifully next to a caramelised onion and goats cheese tart.
Cracking the code: Contains sulphites.
Piccadilly Domaine Lucci ‘Pellicule’ 2011 Chardonnay, South Australia
Around $25 a bottle. Available from selected bottle shops and at www.lucymargauxvineyards.com.
This one is pale lemon in colour and cloudy. It has a delicate, ever so slightly sweet nose, showing lemon, yet it is soft with no harsh corners or bitterness. A real treat that is stunning on its own. It is also outstanding against homemade winter warmers such as spinach and fetta pie or roasted chicken and vegetables. If you still think of chardonnays as big, bold and over-oaked try this and it will be the game changer for you.
Cracking the code: Contains sulphites.
Rosa by KT Rosada tempranillo garnacha 2012 Watervale, South Australia
Around $22 a bottle. Available at selected bottle shops and at www.winesbykt.com
Light, almost ripe strawberries and faint touches of peach fill the nose. The palate is dry with enough citrus to create a fresh, clean acidity. It finishes full of creaminess and red berries. A versatile and delectable wine that has enough grip to hold up to a range of cuisine yet is ridiculously easy on its own. Put with a fresh Vietnamese style salad or pan fried salmon.
Cracking the code: Minimal sulphur dioxide added.
Battle of Bosworth Puritan Shiraz, McLaren Vale 2013
Around $20 a bottle. Available at selected bottle shops and at www.battleofbosworth.com.au
This delicious drop has a vibrant red currant and blueberry nose that hints at spiciness. The palate is plum, blueberry and a slight leafiness. It has a medium body that is balanced by some acidity and the finish lingers nicely on the front palate. An impressive drop that shows that wines can excel without added sulphur. Definitely a red that can hold up to juicy BBQ steak or a slow cooked lamb. If you want a no added preservative red wine then get your hands on this.
Cracking the code: Certified organic, labelled as ‘no added preservatives’ and has no added sulphur dioxide.
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 Wine Australia, ‘Wine Australia Compliance Guide for Wine Producers’, Current January 2013, p8 <www.wineaustralia.com>, (retrieved 12 July 2013).
 Wine Australia, ‘Wine Australia Compliance Guide for Wine Producers’, Current January 2013, p12 <www.wineaustralia.com>, (retrieved 12 July 2013).
 M Skinner, ‘Heard it through the grapevine, the things you should know to enjoy wine’, Octopus Publishing Group, London, 2012, p170.
 Goode, J in ‘The Polo, Veuve Cliquot Champagne and Hangover Test’, The London Foodie, <http://www.thelondonfoodie.co.uk>, September 2010, (retrieved 14 July 2103).