THE BLAME GAME

Life & Style Weekend - - TASTE - WORDS: TRAVIS SCHULTZ

If I had a “ten­ner” for ev­ery time I’ve heard peo­ple say that “the sul­phites in red wine give me headaches”, I reckon I’d prob­a­bly be on a plane to the Ba­hamas right now! Rightly or wrongly, sul­phur diox­ide (SO2) is of­ten blamed for hang­overs and headaches on the morn­ing af­ter a lit­tle bit of overindul­gence, but a lit­tle bit of factcheck­ing quickly proves the ur­ban myth.

In this day and age, terms such as “or­ganic” and “preser­va­tive free” are buzz words that are send­ing cash reg­is­ters ring­ing (or per­haps, beep­ing) in su­per­mar­kets and food stores across the coun­try. Af­ter all, surely any chem­i­cal com­pound or ad­di­tive must be bad for us? And con­versely, bio­dy­nam­ics and “nat­u­ral prod­ucts” must be okay? One only needs to look at the pro­lif­er­a­tion of or­ganic stores around the coun­try to as­sess con­sumers’ at­trac­tion to this hy­poth­e­sis.

While preser­va­tives such as sul­phites are of­ten used in wine­mak­ing, wine will ac­tu­ally also pro­duce its own nat­u­ral preser­va­tives in the form of al­co­hol, tan­nin and acid­ity. Typ­i­cally, red wine has more of these “nat­u­ral” preser­va­tives than white wines. Per­haps that’s why some of my friends in­sist that its only red wine which gives them “sul­phite headaches” rather than white wine. Iron­i­cally, white wines will typ­i­cally con­tain more sul­phur diox­ide (also known as preser­va­tive 220) than white wines! The re­al­ity for wine­mak­ers is that red wines need less preser­va­tive than whites be­cause of the tan­nins which are re­leased from skin con­tact dur­ing the wine­mak­ing process.

When it comes to wine­mak­ing, the terms “or­ganic” and “bio-dy­namic” do not mean that a wine is preser­va­tive free. In the wine­mak­ing process, sul­phites can oc­cur nat­u­rally dur­ing the fer­men­ta­tion process. In fact, the level of sul­phites that can be pro­duced due to yeast fer­men­ta­tion can be enough to ex­ceed the thresh­old for dis­clo­sure of 10mg/l with­out any­thing be­ing added!

What is per­haps not well un­der­stood is that sul­phur diox­ide is present in ex­traor­di­nar­ily low quan­ti­ties in most red wines. To put it in per­spec­tive, by con­tent, dried fruit or French fries will nor­mally con­tain at least 10 or 20 times more sul­phur diox­ide by vol­ume, than a dry red wine. These sul­phites give great pro­tec­tion against ox­i­di­s­a­tion to wine but must be la­belled as con­tain­ing sul­phites if there are 10ppm or more af­ter bot­tling.

Whilst there is a small group of peo­ple who are al­ler­gic to sul­phites, for the vast ma­jor­ity of bon vi­vants, a headache or han­gover is more likely to be caused by the al­co­hol, de­hy­dra­tion or the phe­no­lics (due to skin con­tact and nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring tan­nins). Iron­i­cally, de­spite their propen­sity to de­liver headaches with over-in­dul­gence, phe­no­lics are an anti-ox­i­dant which is widely be­lieved to be good for your health in ap­pro­pri­ate doses!

For this rea­son, dry red wines are of­ten con­sid­ered to be far less “bad” for your health than white wines (which can some­times have high lev­els of sugar as well). As I pen this ar­ti­cle, I’m sam­pling a glass of the Yan­garra 2017 Gre­nache from Mclaren Vale. It’s claimed to be “preser­va­tive free” and to have had min­i­mal in­ter­ven­tion in the wine­mak­ing process, but it’s prob­a­bly not up to the nor­mally high stan­dard of a Mclaren Vale Gre­nache. I’m very keen on gre­nache from the Barossa Val­ley and Mclaren Vale (where there are some of the world’s old­est gre­nache vines dat­ing back to 1850). The Yan­garra Gre­nache is cer­ti­fied or­ganic, has had no ad­di­tion of preser­va­tives and has been made from grapes which were grown with­out the use of her­bi­cides or pes­ti­cides. It’s only a medium-bod­ied wine with savoury raspberry char­ac­ters on the palate, a cus­tard curd edge and a slightly funky fin­ish, but with­out the lively juici­ness that we of­ten see in gre­nache from our pre­mium pro­duc­ers. A bit dis­ap­point­ing, so I think I’ll look for a gre­nache which la­bels “con­tains sul­phites” next time I’m shop­ping for a good one and just go easy on the re­fills!

Travis Schultz is the prin­ci­pal of Travis Schultz Law but he has been moon­light­ing as a restau­rant reviewer and wine writer for the past 15 years.

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