Opus number 1111 – Three cheers for sulfur in wine

For my 1111th post on Elitistreview I would like to sing the praises of sulfur’s role in wine-making; it is truly worthy of celebration. Too many vacuous halfwits have jumped on the band-wagon to criticise this noble element and its helpful compounds when in reality its beneficial roles in viticulture are indisputable. These poorly informed clodpoles have made us endure wines suffering from premature oxidation or bacterial spoilage. I say, “Enough!” and demand such dolts are no longer given uncritical press.

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To be strictly accurate I should point out that not all sulfur compounds are beneficial and to be lauded. Reduced sulfur compounds, of the ‘rotten eggs’ hydrogen sulfide type, may be hardly extant but they are not characters we seek in wine. It is the oxidised SO2-based compounds that are our friends.

They have been our friends for a long time. Roman artefacts have shown that they recognised the value of sulfites in wine and food production. The earliest mention in wine-making law was a Prussian royal decree issued in 1487 which formalised the previous ad hoc usage.

These poorly-informed, dullard sulfur-phobes, as is the way with scare-mongers, ignore the advantages of using sulfur whilst trumping up charges to level against it. The smallest crime levelled at the compounds are that they cause ‘red wine headaches’, with more serious accusations including the triggering of allergies that can result in potentially lethal anaphylaxis. Generally speaking, these asseverations are groundless poppycock.

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Firstly, wine is unfairly targeted due to its sulfate content. Mitchell Zeller, of the US Center for Science in the Public Interest, tells us the following foods contain higher sulfate levels, in some cases by orders of magnitude, than wine : fruit juices, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, syrups, sugar, jams, gelatins, cake toppings, baked goods, pizza dough, frozen and dehydrated potatoes, processed vegetables, cheeses, as well as in many prescription drugs.

So the next time you hear a neurotic killjoy, who no-doubt considers large and regular bowel movements an acceptable substitute for fun, whine bitterly about our favourite beverage feel free to tell them the sulfurous miasma surrounding the leathery, dried fruit they endlessly consume hampers your appreciation for breathing uncontaminated air.

Which brings us on to the second point concerning how many people truly have demonstrable negative reactions to sulfites. Research performed by the US FDA suggests that 99.75% of the population have no measurable response to sulfites in the levels found in food. The only people at risk, we are told, are approximately 5% of the population of asthmatics, who make up 5% of the total population, in whom it can sometimes trigger an asthma attack. These are not terrifying numbers, so do feel free to quote them to the leathery, dried-out killjoy who we seem doomed to encounter on a regular basis.

So, it seems that sulfites in wine are not killing, nor provoking any response in, 99.75% of us. Yet over the years I’ve heard massed ranks of the hard of thinking attributing their ‘morning after’ pounding head to ‘all that sulfur in the red wine’. It hardly need be said that the root of the headache is more often than not simple excess. Indeed, if you are looking to blame sulfites in wine best choose whites, and sweet whites especially, as these generally contain higher levels of the compounds. Best of all admit you went on a bit of a bender and got totally foxed – that is what everyone thinks you did anyway no matter how much you mither about the sulfur in your drink.

My final point about sulfur levels in wine concerns those claim to buy only wines without any added. Sure, none may have been added, but as sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation there is no such thing as a sulfur-free wine. Sorry to let you down, but there is no escaping the stuff. OK, I’m not the slightest bit sorry. Chuffed, in fact, to burst the bubble of people using sheer sophistry to accommodate their deluded health neuroses.

At this point it should be abundantly clear that the ‘Contains sulphites’ warning on a label should be treated with blithe indifference, but why are they used in the first place? One use was exemplified by no lesser man than Egon ‘Yoda’ Muller of Scharzhofberg fame. When asked in a tasting what made a bottle of Riesling able to be cellared he quoted his father:

Three things make a bottle of Riesling able to age for a long time. Firstly, plenty of fruit. Secondly, plenty of acidity. Finally, plenty of sulfur.

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The Oxford tasting crew rolled about the floor with laughter. But he is undoubtedly correct. The German winemakers whose bottles merit most cellar time all use plenty of sulfur. ‘Shouting’ Manfred Prum’s wines may have distinctly volcanic aromas for their first decade or so of life but when blind tasting it is a rare occurrence to think one is anything other than younger than the year on the label. They last and last.

It is not just true of German Riesling. The oldest bottle of white Burgundy that I’ve had in recent months [link2post id=”4238″]was a 1999 Meursault[/link2post]. It may not have been tumescent with dimension but, thanks to the dose of sulfur it was given when bottled, it had no hint of the ‘premox’ problems that have beset white Burgundy in recent years.

Indeed, I would draw the broader conclusion that this problem has only emerged since poorly-informed wine journalists have pandered to the more lunatic fringe of their readership and endlessly droned on about the evils of sulfur and how it should be eliminated from wine-making in its entirety. This, of course, is absolute codswallop. I’ve had many excellent white Burgundies from the 1970s and before which, if not always throbbing with vivacity, have been in better condition than so many bottles dating from after these de-tox vermin opened their unenlightened, deficiently educated mouths.

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The preservative, anti-oxidant effects of sulfur extend to the colour of our wines. If it were not for its addition then both our red and white wines would soon turn distinctly brown. I have never really been in the mood to order a glass of beige.

Perhaps the most important role of sulfites in wine-making is that of preventing microbial spoilage. Wine is what is known as a ‘partially spoilled food product’ – much like cured ham or cheese. The key is to stop anything spoiling it even further. As I said in my report of [link2post id=”2649″]2009 German wine[/link2post] its biochemical nature makes it a delectable target for any passing micro-organism to multiply in, screwing up your bottle of Musigny in the process. Sulfites are anti-septic so are an invaluable defence against such wine-buggering fauna. I’ve popped bottles of red Burgundy that have been inadequately sulfured allowing yeasts to grow in the wine and make my bottle of red distinctly cloudy and aggressively fizzy. All that was needed to prevent these bottles from being faulty was enough sulfur being added at bottling time.

In these enlightened times the buzzword is ‘natural wine’ – a nebulously defined term but it frequently includes a desire to reduce or eliminate the use of sulfur. I find the ‘natural wine’ epithet disingenuous, but I am all for minimising tinkering with the wine-making process. However, the ‘natural wine-makers’ I consider the most sophisticated, open-minded and praise-worthy are those who say, “If my wines need sulfur I’ll add it without hesitation.” Good for them! I raise a glass of brightly coloured, fresh wine to toast all such pragmatic wine-makers.

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