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Sulphur debate boils over

Published:  03 June, 2016

With the emergence of a counterculture in wine styles, the President of the OIV, the International Vine and Wine Organisation, has issued a controversial warning over the push to reduce sulphur (SO2) levels in wine.

"I am concerned that [a reduction in SO2] will end in a downward spiral which we cannot stop anymore - that will definitely change the styles of wines," Monika Christmann president of the OIV said.

"If we reduce the levels further how will we be able to stabilise wines?" she said.

Her comments come in the wake of the rise in production and demand for organic wine and the emergence of new-wave wines inspired by the natural wine movement in which sulphur levels are kept to a minimum.

Jancis Robinson recently described new-wave styles as either tasting like a revitalising breath of fresh air blown in from another, thrilling planet or when unsuccessful, like a five-day-old cider with a hint of mouse droppings. "In 40 years of observing the wine scene, I never known it to be in such a state of flux. Today, a new subculture or, perhaps more accurately, a counterculture has emerged," Robinson said in an article in The Financial Times in May. "A new generation of producers is turning its back on the conventional archetypes and is making wines quite different from the old icons," she said.

According to Tony Milanowski, a lecturer in wine at Plumpton College, East Sussex, the impact of sulphur levels on aroma and flavour levels varies according to the type of wine produced.

Christmann's comments on the advantages of SO2 which include the protection of wines against oxidation and microbial spoilage, follows her intervention at the Cool Climate symposium (ICCWS), in which several delegates said her fears over sulphur levels were unwarranted. Remy Charest, a wine writer based in Quebec, said maximum sulphur levels in Europe under organic certification were high enough to ensure sufficient use of SO2 in wines.

But Christmann warned that with the growth in demand and production of organic wines, conventional wines would now try to drop their SO2 levels.

"SO2 is now very often put in the "health box" meaning that lower levels of SO2 are presented to the consumers as "more healthy" as can be seen in the regulation for "organic wines," she said.

"As a result "conventional wines" will try to drop their sulphur levels as well and organic wines will have to go even further," she said.

"...with climate change and its impact on must/wine composition acids go down and pH levels rise. As a result the percentage of molecular SO2 is dramatically reduced, " she said adding that the none-use of SO2 in used barrels can be more dangerous than using it.