It’s in everything, from jam to fruit juice. Sulphur, as a simple molecule, is seriously abundant. Some people even refer to humans as sulphur-DNA based life, owing to the glue-like role it plays in keeping our DNA wound up. Its role is not arbitrary. Its highly powerful, life-giving chemical properties are also what give it it’s extreme antimicrobial abilities. It’s nuclear for yeast and bacteria; the gestapo of must, showing little mercy or discrimination.
As much as you might not want to accept it, we primates are pretty similar to fungus. We’ve both got proton pumps, ATP pumps and supercoiled DNA coding. We both love sugar, and yes, believe it or not, alcohol is toxic to us both. And so is sulphur. The same biological pathways that sulphur devastates in yeast are damaged in us too when we ingest this controversial substance. Unsurprisingly, many would agree it’s a repulsive compound, and for those of you blessed enough to have come close to the pure form – it’s certainly not a fresh ocean breeze that caresses your inner nostrils. It’s more like sandpaper spinning on the end of a drill-bit forced up your nose.
It’s no surprise people go ‘ape’ for anything lacking it. Biodynamic wines fly off the shelves locally and internationally; people hate the stuff so much they’ve convinced themselves it’s an “allergen”. Actually it’s just quite nasty.
The problem is, it’s not easy to make a non-sulphured wine. Sulphur dioxide is as ubiquitous in winemaking as the wooden barrel; more so, in fact. It serves a plethora of purposes in protecting the wine against microbes, oxygen and flavour degradation etc. Since these risks appear daily in a winery, it’s necessary to have the ultimate prevention. It’s a bit like seat belts in your car, if your car happens to be driving the Dakar Rally.
It’s not impossible though. An esteemed winemaker, or two, has said “good grapes, good winemaking”. To clarify: good grapes are healthy, non-rotten grapes – preferably with a nice low pH (a nifty natural wine protectant); and good winemaking includes cellar floors, surfaces, pumps and pipes that are clean enough to perform surgery on. After that, if it survives the first week in bottle it’ll go all the way … or so I’ve been told. And there’s plenty of examples to show.
It’s generally a bit of a dicey argument to suggest zero sulphur content in your wines. A great many wineries work hard to protect their wine and simply add the utter minimal, which acts as a failsafe more than anything to prevent flavour loss from oxygen contact. This seems to work, resulting in a severely reduced sulphur content compared to the norm. Of course, this becomes incredibly difficult when working with large quantities of wine, and not everyone has the luxury of working with healthy grapes.
It’s all, however, an unseen hypocrisy; a perversion of ‘the ignorance is bliss’ scenario. Sure, don’t spray chemicals on my lettuce, chia seeds and paleo diet. Fine, don’t ruin my weight loss, low blood pressure and increased self-esteem with sulphur. Wine has a fraction of a percentage of sulphur, please get rid of that, it’s harmful for me and my unborn baby. But…you can leave that toxic 13% alcohol in there – no problem there!