By champagnediscovery, Feb 28 2016 03:18PM
In recent years there has been a marked increase within the natural wine-making World to produce cuvées without the addition of sulphites (or sulfites if you are reading this in the US).
So what are sulphites exactly and why the drive to eradicate them? Sulphites are derivatives of the element Sulphur and are principally used as a preservative. The most common form being Sulphur dioxide (SO2) which can also be found in all manner of foodstuffs, listed as the additive E220. Potassium metabisulphite (E224) and Potassium bisulphite (E228) are also used for the same purpose.
In champagne production, sulphites are added to the freshly pressed grape juice ostensibly to inhibit or prevent oxidation. It has a secondary function to eliminate harmful bacteria (particularly lactic) and wild yeasts which can seriously affect the wine’s flavour. Malolactic fermentation, often used in champagne-making to convert the tart Malic acid to the softer Lactic Acid is a useful tool to prevent the requirement for sterilisation/filtering.
The use of sulphites is obviously a benefit to the wine-maker and of course the drinker, ensuring a better quality product and one that will have the longevity to sit in a cellar – or other storage form. So what are the downsides? Well, there are a few and perhaps the most important to many is the fact that sulphites are an additive and therefore the less put into the wine, the more natural it is? Perhaps, but sulphites do occur naturally in the fermentation process, so even if none have been added to the wine, the bottle will still have to carry the “contains sulphites” warning. And, of course other substances can be added during the many stages of wine production, such as during fining and filtering.
Sulphites are toxic, albeit in large quantities and the level in wine is very small indeed. In fact much lower than the levels found within the food processing industry. Rest assured, even if you are drinking a lot of champagne the levels should be fine. That brings us on to the dreaded hangover headache that you may have experienced once or thrice? The blame for such was aimed squarely at sulphites. Recent research however counters this argument, perhaps suggesting that the headache is after all down to the amount of alcohol consumed, no doubt partnered to a little dehydration. Intolerance to sulphites is also believed to be very low and actually lower than that of alcohol although there is potential for those suffering from asthma to find their condition exacerbated by the chemical.
It is also believed by some wine-makers that sulphites can inhibit the particular identity of individual parcels/vineyards and even the given year and a better depth of flavour and purity can be attained without their addition.
It will be interesting to see if sulphites usage follows the trend of sugar where as with cuvées of extra-brut and non-dosé origin, we get to see more champagnes being produced with lower levels or without the addition of sulphur.
Sulphites reduction can be enhanced by modern gravity-fed pressing and disgorgement techniques which limit the opportunities for oxidation such as those used by Rémi Leroy who produces superb champagnes bursting with flavour. The first champagne we tried without the addition of sulphur was the cuvée “Violaine” by Benoît Lahaye, which whilst intensely fruity felt it could benefit from additional aging. Most recently, we tasted the cuvée “Sans Soufre” (without Sulphur) from Marc Augustin which was a delight, deep, complex and full of flavour. As with all aspects of wine-making, the end result through reducing or abolishing the use of sulphites will ultimately come down to the experience and skill of the wine-maker. And let us not forget, they only get to practice once a year!
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