There are two little words printed on the labels of all bottles of wine – ‘contains sulphites’.
A legal requirement of virtually all countries of the world, the words are there for a reason, as are the sulphites.
They are the result of sulphur dioxide being added to the wine during the winemaking process. The reason for the addition is to help protect the wine from bacterial spoilage and oxidation. A bit like the mixture of sulphur and copper sulphate, which is sprayed on all grape vines (yes, even organic) to prevent mildew, it is a necessary evil.
Without the addition of sulphur dioxide, most wines would be undrinkable in a very short period of time.
However, some people are extremely sensitive to sulphites and can suffer health problems if exposed. Hence the warning on the bottles. The number of people at risk is actually quite low, but the number of people who appear to suffer some form of allergic reaction or sensitivity seems to be much higher. There is thus a movement in winemaking circles to reduce the addition of sulphites to the lowest possible level, without affecting the quality or longevity of the wine.
Another move afoot is the production of so-called ‘natural’ wines. These have no additives whatsoever, are fermented with natural yeasts and often bottled unfined and unfiltered. A great idea perhaps, but not one that works particularly well. Try some, and you’ll see why. Wine is fragile and susceptible to spoilage from all sorts of causes, not least from oxidation on exposure to air. This is why various techniques are employed by winemakers to ensure that their quality product is enjoyable and stays that way for the intended life-span of the wine. One of these techniques is the addition of sulphur dioxide in carefully calculated amounts.
My personal belief is that sulphites are necessary, but the amount added should be as low as possible. I also believe that a scale should be produced and the level of sulphites in the wine at bottling should be shown, not just the words ‘contains sulphites’.
So, if you are sensitive to sulphites and not convinced by natural wines, there is now a new type of wine being made in South Africa, which appears to tick all the right boxes.
The wines are marketed under the name Earth’s Essence and are produced through a revolutionary process by the wine producing giant, KWV. Instead of adding sulphites, wood extracts from two native plants are used, which have naturally high levels of antioxidants, preserving the wines from spoilage through oxidation. The plants involved are the Rooibos and Honeybush, with the old wood from these plants being dried, finely milled and roasted, before being put into infusion bags for adding to the wine. This innovative approach is a new concept in winemaking, producing a true new world wine, using only natural products and no addition of sulphites.
As KWV themselves say: The Rooibos plant is as uniquely South African as the terroir where the grapes are grown”.
Fermenting and maturing wine with this patented process, using wood from the Rooibos and Honeybush plants, is a natural way of keeping it sulphur free. A range of wines is produced, including a Sauvignon Blanc and the iconic South African red grape – Pinotage. Both of these are available at £9.99 through the online grocer, Ocado. In the next couple of months, they will be changing to Chenin Blanc and Syrah, as these grape varieties seem to work even better with the new process.
The process has been refined even further under the guidance of head winemaker Wim Truter, using essence of tannins from the plants, which interfere less with the varietal aromatics, but give the same protection to the wines. With the increasing yearly demand for organic foods and drinks, combined with greater awareness of environmental impact and conscious consumerism, this type of innovation could well prove a winner and the wines could get a wide loyal following.
Richard Esling BSc DipWSET is an experienced wine consultant, agent, writer and educator. An erstwhile wine importer, he runs a wine agency and consultancy company called WineWyse, is founder and principal of the Sussex Wine Academy, chairman of Arundel Wine Society and is an International Wine Judge. Twitter @richardwje. Visit www.winewyse.com.
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