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What is sulphite free wine?

Looking for sulphite free wine? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t exist. Small amounts of sulphites occur naturally in all wine, regardless of what the winemaker decides to add. Many producers, particularly within the natural wine movement, are moving away from or shunning entirely sulphite additions, and it’s these bottles that are the closest you’ll get to “sulphite free” wine.

To better understand sulphite free wine, or wine with no added sulphites, let’s take a look at what sulphites actually are.

What are sulphites, then?

When wine producers or labels mention “sulphites” (or “sulfites”), they are for the most part talking about sulphur dioxide (SO2), and more specifically to the SO2 added during the winemaking process.

SO2 is a colourless gas achieved through burning elemental sulfur and has long been used as a preservative and disinfectant in wine. Winemakers can add SO2 before, during or after fermentation, and it has multiple benefits upon the wine. Notably, the addition of sulphites can prevent oxidation, which can affect the wine’s colour, aromas and flavours. Sulphites also have antimicrobial properties which can protect the wine against microbial spoilage from yeasts and bacteria.

Essentially, adding sulphites keeps the wine stable, fresh and looking, smelling and tasting as the winemaker intended. They also contribute to the ageing potential of fine wines.

So, what’s sulphite-free wine?

For a start, there’s no such thing from a technical or legal standpoint. Additions aside, all wine contains naturally-occurring SO2 as a result of the alcoholic fermentation. The phrase “sulphite-free wine” is not a protected labelling term like, for example, “organic wine” or “made from organic grapes”.

With that said, there is a movement away from adding SO2, and the levels added today pale in comparison to those of the past. The EU sets out strict maximum permitted levels of SO2 additions. These requirements are ever stricter for producers of organic wine, and in general producers tend to add considerably lower levels than those allowed by the maximum thresholds. Nowhere is a move away from sulphites more apparent than in natural wine, however.

True sulphite-free wine may not exist, but producers can limit or eliminate altogether the amount of sulphites they add. Wines with no added sulphites are often, though not exclusively, made by natural winemakers. The term “natural wine” is problematic as it too lacks a legal definition, but most natural producers forego adding SO2.

Is sulphite-free wine any good?

There is a lot of great wine made with no added sulphites, and there is plenty of not-so-great wine, too. Removing sulphite additions runs a higher risk of the wine going bad through oxidation or microbial spoilage, and developing a range of off-flavours and other faults. Skilled winemakers can offset much of this risk, though they cannot mitigate it entirely.

Wine without added sulphites is not inherently good or bad, and for the most part quality will come down the producer and how he or she handles the winemaking process.

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