~OK. I’ll do it one more time. I’ll write about sulfur dioxide, a subject that doesn’t seem ever settled, especially when dealing with that ridiculous CONTAINS SULFITE warning on wine labels.
~Most of us in the business know that the warning was the result of pressure by anti-alcohol lobbyists to make people believe that wine is a dangerous product because it includes one of the sulfites, the one known as sulfur dioxide (SO2).
I’ve read that about 1% of 4 million asthmatics in America are the only people at risk of serious sulfite-induced side effects, and there is hardly any record in the U.S. of serious side effects connected to SO2 and wine.
Yet, few anti-sulfite conversations concern dried fruits or packaged foods, which likely contain as much or more SO2 than wine?
Again, worry over SO2 in wine is a ruse—but one with legs.
~The lobbyists’ message has been heard by many: people still believe sulfites cause headaches—no scientific evidence to support that b.s.—and people still believe that sulfites are always, under any circumstance, inorganic. Generally, sulfur dioxide production is the result of decaying matter, which makes it a rather organic process, but that’s splitting hairs, as it is not carbon-based, which apparently is the definition of organic matter...
~Are you still awake?
~I’m not necessarily against non-intervention wine production. In fact, I applaud attempts to stay free of chemicals in grape growing and winemaking. But there are both exceptions and extenuating circumstances, as there are in any subject matter.
~Many non-interventionist wine producers pound their chests about how they don’t spray their vines against pests and diseases and how they don’t use commercial yeasts to start fermentation (a subject that is so fraught with confusion that I have yet to establish the best way for me to present it to readers).
~The non-interventionists carry the theme into the winery with no fining, no filtration, and no SO2 additions.
~To be sure, some non-interventionists produce fine wines. But some also produce pretty awful wines, and some who get by with a drinkable product, may put forth unstable wines that don’t hold up too well in the bottle over time.
~Again, I don’t condemn non-interventionists but I do condemn those who practice it from the vantage point of a blind spot such as “making wine like grandfather used to make it.”
~In the Italian-American Brooklyn community where I was spawned, grandfathers produced great vinegar among one or two drinkable wines. Those guys pressed, fermented, barrel aged and bottled their wine. Their only intervention was to move the product from place to place. Many of them had no idea what “topping up” meant or what a carbon dioxide blanket could do to slow down oxidation during wine transport.
~Vinegar was often the result of grandfather’s winemaking, and vinegar can be a drawback of non-intervention professional winemaking, too.
~If a non-interventionist doesn’t know when, how or doesn’t care to top off barrels properly all the political belief in the world may not help the wine survive.
~If a non-interventionist can’t recognize an off odor from bacterial activity, all the political belief in the world won’t help correct the problem.
~If a non-interventionist is against correcting problems out of sheer political beliefs, all the science in the world will not be brought to bear on the resulting products, and all the centuries of knowledge might as well have been thrown down the same drain that the wines may need to be thrown down.
~I have tasted a few non-interventionist wines that clearly illustrated what can be wrong when political beliefs meet with scientific realities.
~Whether or not a winemaker wants to believe it, SO2 additions can protect wine from various bacterial attacks and from the effects of oxidation, especially when the winemaking practices may require extra protection.
The latest information I’ve read is that SO2 in wine may not prevent oxidation directly but it may help the wine by some indirect activity.
However it does its work, SO2 was discovered in second century Roman winemaking as a means to address the percentage of wine that turned to vinegar each year; I believe something around 10 percent was lost to the acetobacter bug, a bug that cannot thrive without oxygen.
In modern times, the U.S. government identifies acceptable levels of volatile acidity (a condition caused by chemical reactions concerning acetobacter and ethanol in wine).
Volatile acidity is often a precursor to vinegar but can also be manifested as ethyl acetate development, giving wine the smell of furniture polish.
Proper SO2 additions can prevent these problems.
~When no SO2 is added as part of the non-intervention winemaking regimen, the producer is exempt from the CONTAINS SULFITE labeling requirement, provided the naturally occurring SO2 produced from fermentation does not exceed 10 parts per million (SO2 levels are routinely monitored in most wineries).
~The lack of a label warning often interprets in the marketplace as winemaking that is pure or—dare I say it—organic, but as far as I know the definition of pure or of organic neither includes quality nor “drinkability.”
~When I buy wine, I want it to be drinkable, with or without SO2 additions. Based on my experience thus far, the odds that I will get what I want appear to be stacked against non-intervention.
Copyright, Thomas Pellechia
October, 2007. All Rights Reserved.