It’s so hard to know what’s going to be good or better for you, alongside what’s just hype or a buzzword when it comes to healthy living. When you hear the term ‘preservative free wine’ – what do you think? For me, I immediately think it must be better for me – the more natural a product is, the more I think it’s good for my health. So should we be drinking only preservative free wine?
A couple of years ago on the blog I actually did cover this topic slightly when I tasted and chatted to the guys from Freehand Wines. I used this opportunity to really understand the difference between all the terms like; preservative free, organic, biodynamic, natural wine etc. I’ll delve into these definitions further in this post.
If you’ve read the back of a wine label before you might have seen things like ‘contains sulfites’ or even ‘preservative free’ – but what exactly does this mean? Today I am going to explain these terms and wines to you and also suggest some ‘preservative free’ wines for you to check out for yourself.
What preservatives are in wine?
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2) is the main preservative used throughout the stages of making a wine. On a wine label, it can be sometimes be labelled as ‘preservative 220 added’ and I’ve also seen it labelled as ‘antioxidant 220 added’ – which makes it sound like a healthy vitamin to me (hook it up to my veins!). Go and check a few wine bottles in your house and I am sure you’ll see some sort of mention on the back label.
The maximum amount of sulphur that can be added to a wine in Australia is 300 mg/l as stipulated by Wine Australia. However you’ll find most wines have a lot less than this and typically stick to 150mg/l and under.
It’s also important to understand that yes sulphur dioxide can be added to wine, but it can also be produced naturally by the yeast during fermentation. Therefore when winemaker’s do label their wines as ‘preservative free’ it more so means that they haven’t physically added in sulphur dioxide into the wine. Therefore perhaps on labels, it would be more accurate to write ‘no preservatives added’ instead.
What does ‘may contain sulfites’ mean?
If you have read the back of a few wine labels in your time, then you may have seen the phrase ‘may contain sulfites’ on the back of the label. The French Rose bottle I currently have in front of me says ‘contient des sulfites’ – despite failing French at school, I have a feeling this means the same thing.
SO2, HSO3 (bisulphite) and H2SO3 (sulphurous acid) are collectively called ‘sulfites’. The interesting thing is that wine producers never actually (well not that I have seen) ever disclosed exactly how much mg/l of sulfites are in the wine. If you have anything over 10mg/l of sulfites in the wine, then by law winemakers have to pop this fairly general term on the label.
Compared to the ‘olden days’ of winemaking, a lot fewer preservatives are added to wine as winemakers aim to produce the best quality fruit (the better the fruit and careful handling of it = the fewer preservatives you’ll need – more on this below). There are many wines out there which are very low in sulfites however from the label it’s hard to tell so some extra research is needed whether that’s doing a few Google searchers and checking out the winery’s website or perhaps reaching out to the winery on social media.
Why add preservatives to wine?
Sulphur dioxide is a good thing in winemaking – it helps the wine get to your palate in the best condition possible. It defends the grapes & wine against nasty bacteria’s and oxidisation. Just like we consume vitamins to keep us healthier for longer, we add SO2 to wine for longevity. I will touch on this more below, however unless you suffer a reaction from sulphur dioxide there is really no health benefits to drinking only preservative free tipples.
This brings me to the point mentioned above – having the best quality grapes in pristine condition means a lot less sulphur dioxide needs to be added. Just prior to vintage and during vintage you may drive past vineyards which have netting covering their vines – these nets are to help stop birds and pests damaging the grapes. The more damaged the grapes are at harvest, the more sulphur dioxide will be needed to produce an enjoyable and drinkable wine.
As you may also know, oxygen isn’t a good friend to wine – as soon as the wine has a large exposure to oxygen it will slowly (or quickly in some cases of very old wine) start to deteriorate. The sulphur dioxide during the winemaking stage will help neutralise any oxygen that may get near the wine so it can be bottled and sealed up for your delicious consumption.
How does wine last without adding preservatives?
This comes back to the natural preservatives wine makes on its own – alcohol, tannin (phenolics) and natural acidity. Red wine typically has more of these natural preservatives which is why you may see more preservative free red wines on the market than whites.
Plus you’ll also find that typically white wines do contain more sulfites than red wine. This is because the tannin in red wines (which comes from when the grapes are in contact with the skins) contains natural sulphur dioxide. So if you are looking for a wine with low amounts of sulfites in, then heading towards the red wine aisle of your bottle shop might be wise.
And again, the more the grapes are looked after in the vineyard prior to harvest – the easier they are going to be to turn into preservative free wine.
Is it the preservatives in wine that cause headaches?
This is always a very interesting topic and it is one of those wine myths that does need to be debunked every other day!
Technically sulfites don’t give you a headache. If you are allergic or to some degree intolerant of sulfites then you’ll more likely suffer from asthma or hayfever type symptoms (coughing, wheezing and that horrible tightening of the chest). You can read more about the symptoms of sulfite sensitiveness on ASCIA.
The funny thing is, dried fruit and a number of other foods typically have more sulfites in them than wine – see the below graph done by Wine Folly on measuring up sulfites in wine. Therefore it’s safe to say, if you can eat dried fruit – like dried apricots, then sulfites in wine might not be what’s causing your issues.
In my post, Why Does White Wine Effect Me More Than Red Wine – I delve a bit further into why wine affects people in different ways. Headaches are more likely caused by the phenolics in wine or it could quite easily be the case of consuming too much alcohol in one sitting, drinking too quickly or not eating or drinking water while consuming alcohol.
The Syndey Morning Herald actually put together a great article on how sulfites shouldn’t be to blame but instead phenolics and the best wines to choose to help reduce those headaches.
How is preservative free wines made?
We have briefly touched on this above. Basically, the first step in making a wine preservative free is to have the best quality fruit to work with. Using netting as explained above to keep the grapes in pristine condition right before harvesting is a good practice to ensure no damage comes to the fruit alongside harvesting the grapes by hand.
Naturally high phenolic content in the grapes is also a big help and again there are various vineyard practices that can be employed to enhance the phenolic levels in grapes. Basically, phenolics are an antioxidant that is good for heart health. Once the grapes are picked and ready for processing, keeping them nice and cool and away from as much air as possible will also help.
As Great Southern winery, Bunn, puts it:
Preservative free wines are made with utmost care and minimal intervention”.
Organic, biodynamic and natural wine must all be preservative free right?
These are all very different terms that mean different things. Just because a winery is organic, doesn’t necessarily mean the wines are preservative free.
Organic and biodynamic refers to vineyard practices. You’ll find many organic wines which still add sulphur dioxide in the winery (however typically a minimum amount). To gain organic certification, a vineyard simply has to adhere by certain vineyard practices.
Here are my quick definitions of these key terms:
- Organic wine: Means the wine is made by the principle of organic farming, which typically means the exclusion of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and artificial chemical fertilizers in the vineyard
- Biodynamic wine: Biodynamic farming treats the vineyard as a living system. It’s the ideal of ever-increasing ecological self-sufficiency and ethical-spiritual considerations. Think soil fertility, healthy plant growth and working with the rhythms of the cosmos
- Preservative free wine: Preservative free wine, means that no preservatives were added during the winemaking process. However, the term doesn’t acknowledge that during the winemaking process sulphur dioxide is released which is a natural preservative. So we really should say ‘No preservatives added’ instead
- Natural wine: This has different meanings to everyone and the post I did on Freehand Wines helps define what exactly the term natural wine means
How do you know what wines are preservative free?
If a winemaker has put in all the effort to make a preservative free red or white wine, then you’ll know about it. It should be clearly mentioned on the front or back label and no doubt you’ll also be able to find further information online too.
How to find wines with low levels of sulfites:
If you are trying to avoid high levels of sulfites in your wine, then I would suggest
- Opting for red over white wine
- Avoiding cask wine (these tend to have high sulfite levels)
- Look for wines which say ‘no added sulfites’/’minimal added sulfites’/’preservative free’ on the label
- Or drink organic – even though being organic doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t use sulphur dioxide, I think you’ll find many organic winemakers use a lot less sulphur in order to keep their wines as ‘organically produced’ as possible
Preservative free wine brands:
There are a number of Australian wineries that are producing preservative free wine for various reasons. Some of the wineries I have come across in my travels include:
- Battle of Bosworth (McLaren Vale, SA)
- Botobolar (Mudgee, NSW)
Available at Dan Murphy’s
- Bunn (Great Southern, WA)
- Cullen Wines (Margaret River, WA)
- Freehand (Great Southern, WA)
- Happs (Margaret River, WA)
- Harris Organic Wines (Swan Valley, WA)
The Pedro Ximenez dessert wine is PF
- Paxton (McLaren Vale, WA)
- Sam Vinciullo (Margaret River, WA)
- Settlers Ridge Wines (Margaret River, WA)
- Speak No Evil (Orange, NSW)
Available at Dan Murphy’s
- Temple Bruer (Langhorne Creek, SA)
Available at Dan Murphy’s
- Thistle Hill (Mudgee, NSW)
Available at Dan Murphy’s
- Wild Fox Wines (Adelaide Plains, SA)
- York Wines (Avon Valley, WA)
Please note, not all the wines produced by the above producers are preservative free, howeverthey do make some preservative free wines – please refer to the websites for more details.
Should we be drinking more preservative free wine?
Unless you have an allergy or are intolerant to sulfites then there’s no huge need to drink only preservative free wine. At the end of the day it’s really up to you what you want to drink and enjoy – drink what makes you feel good.
However I do want to end this post on the note that, sulphur dioxide does aid hangovers – so if you do tend to indulge in wine a bit too much, then the more preservative free or low sulphur dioxide wine you can consume the better the next day might be for you. As More than Organic put it;
Sulphur dioxide contributes significantly to hangovers. Heavy drinkers who also have to get up in the morning would be advised to stick to natural wine”.
Perhaps that’s the best reason of all to opt for less preservatives in your wine right?