As grapes ferment, some winemakers add additional sulfites to preserve the wine and kill bacteria, while organic winemakers choose to use natural yeasts that contain bacteria-fighting antioxidants. Photo Credit: Wollombi
One of my best friends is a bold red wine fanatic; when I say he loves a rich Cabernet Sauvignon, I mean he will turn his nose up at any bottle of white wine or even Pinot Noir. His only love is Cabernet. But there’s a reason for his niche taste: he’s allergic to wine sulfites, which are added to nearly every bottle of wine on the market today, especially white wines.
As a child, my friend had asthma, making him one of 10-15 percent of asthma sufferers who have sulfite allergies. Wine sulfites release a gas that is an irritant to a small percentage of asthma sufferers, making it downright dangerous for these people to drink wines that have excessive additional sulfites. Thankfully for wine lovers with asthma, a recent study in the Journal of Life Sciences suggests that resveratrol (an antioxidant found naturally in many wines, especially red wines) can improve the color of wine and potentially offer bottles an extended shelf life without the use of added sulfites. Although the vast majority of the population can safely drink wines with added sulfites, new studies like this could change the way that biodynamic winemakers process their wines and may be a huge benefit for those who are sensitive to sulfites.
Why Winemakers Add Sulfites to Wine
Sulfites are natural compounds found in every wine on the market in at least a small amount. Most wines naturally have anywhere from 10-40 parts per million of these compounds, even without human intervention. That’s because sulfites are common in many fruit products, especially dried fruit, which has some of the highest natural concentrations of sulfites on the food market. The issue for many allergy sufferers is when wineries add more sulfites to the wine during processing, which can both alter the smell and flavor of the wine and trigger allergy symptoms in some drinkers. According to Wine Folly, most people claim to smell or taste sulfites in wine once these compounds make up 50 parts per million or more in the wine. In other words, with most wines naturally sitting below 40 parts per million, most wine drinkers can’t detect sulfites that occur naturally, but can detect them when they’re later added by winemakers during the fermentation process.
If wine drinkers claim to taste and smell sulfites, why do most wineries still add them? Well, sulfites are a necessary part of the winemaking process, since they kill off the harmful bacteria that turns wine into vinegar over time. Although some sulfites are needed to preserve wine, biodynamic winemakers are proving that additional sulfites aren’t at all necessary to make wine, as long as winemakers maintain hygienic winemaking conditions. Rather than adding more sulfites to the wine to kill off bacteria, many biodynamic winemakers focus on eliminating the conditions under which harmful bacteria grows in the first place, allowing the sulfites that are naturally in the wine to kill off any remaining bacteria. Many wine drinkers claim that these biodynamic wines taste more true to terroir because they lack the sulfite-heavy taste of mainstream wines.
The key to success for virtually sulfite-free, biodynamic estates is in allowing the grapes to slowly mature in natural yeast (which contains natural sulfites and antioxidants like resveratrol), offering these compounds enough time to kill off the harmful bacteria that would otherwise spoil the wine within six months of being bottled. Chateau Beaucastel is an example of a biodynamic-leaning estate that allows its grapes to ferment with this method. Not only does this estate’s winemakers let natural compounds kill off bacteria, they actually process the grapes through a brief heating process that kills off additional bacteria. This is why their wines can last for decades, even without added sulfites. Negociant Jacques Frelin says that too many winemakers look for the fastest, easiest route to kill wine-spoiling bacteria, when it is better to consider all of the alternatives first. “We work harder (than traditional wine growers) to make our products. You can work less and put some chemical products in to solve your problem, but our way is to root out the problems first,” he says.
How Resveratrol Could Change the Winemaking Process
Without any sulfites whatsoever, wines would spoil due to oxidation and aldehyde, both of which cause blandness and “off” smells in a wine. However, researchers believe that the reason sulfites are so effective at killing bacteria, especially in red wine, is because these compounds work in tandem with antioxidants like resveratrol. For example, red wines have tannin (a stabilizing antioxidant), which is partially why red wines are able to have less sulfites than white wines (which have little to no tannin). The more stable a wine is before it is bottled, the longer it will cellar. This is why winemakers add extra sulfur: to ensure that their wines, especially their relatively unstable white wines, have the longest shelf life possible.
In order to call their wines “organic,” winemakers in the EU simply need to have less than 100 parts per million of sulfites; in the US, the laws are far more strict, requiring organic winemakers to have less than 10 parts per million. Few wineries are able to meet the US standard for sulfite levels. These wineries need a natural, flavorless compound that will help stabilize their wines without adding more sulfites than US regulations allow for organic products. This is where resveratrol could be the answer.
According to the Journal of Life Sciences study, resveratrol does not impact the flavor of the wine at all. In fact, when researchers compared a glass of wine with added resveratrol against a glass with added sulfites, they found that both wines were perfectly stable, but the resveratrol wine had a deeper, more vibrant color than the sulfite-heavy wine. This isn’t the first time that resveratrol has been studied for its antibacterial benefits. A separate study on acne treatments found that resveratrol works alongside other bacteria-killing agents, like benzoyl peroxide, to make them more effective. Although resveratrol itself doesn’t kill off a huge number of bacteria cells, scientists believe that it weakens the bacterial cell membranes, allowing other bacteria-killing compounds, like sulfites, to finish the job.
For winemakers, this could mean that wines containing added resveratrol won’t need as much sulfites to kill off harmful bacteria. If winemakers cut back on the sulfites they add to their wines and use resveratrol instead, they could maintain an extended shelf life on their wines without impacting the wine’s flavor. In addition, wineries would find it easier to meet the US organic wine labeling standards. This hypothesis still requires more study, but some researchers suspect that resveratrol will be an effective alternative to added sulfites in the future.
Booming Market Promise
Winemakers and people with sulfite allergies might find resveratrol useful, but how will this impact wine collectors? In the U.S., organic wine sales represent a $26 billion per year industry, and these sales have steadily risen by an average of 20 percent every year since 2002 (when the U.S. first introduced laws regulating organic labeling). Although profits are potentially huge, organic winemaking isn’t an easy business, as winemakers like Chapoutier can attest. This estate is known as one of the most biodynamic, terroir-driven wineries in the world, and its winemakers spend countless hours tending the vines.
As we see more studies on resveratrol, we could see more winemakers switching over to biodynamic winemaking practices and moving away from added sulfites. For collectors, it’s important to look at the wine estates that are moving away from added sulfites now, and consider investing in those estates for the future, as the U.S. as a whole becomes more health conscious, and as the organic movement grows.
Although sulfites are harmless for the majority of the population, many wine drinkers are still interested in buying wines without added sulfites because they believe that the flavors will be more true to terroir. When you buy and cellar wines that contain relatively little added sulfites, you create a niche with your collection that many buyers might find appealing. As your peers invest in classic bottles like DRC, you can make your collection stand out as you invest in highly terroir-driven, biodynamic-leaning estates like Leflaive. More major wineries, including DRC, are getting back to biodynamic techniques, and you’ll want to take advantage of this growing trend for the future.
Whether you are starting your high-end wine collection or adding to an established portfolio, Vinfolio is your partner in buying, selling, and professional storage. Contact us today to get access to the world’s finest wine.