Hangover In A Bottle
Why sulphur dioxide costs you the next day and how to avoid it.
By far the most common question that I get asked about natural wine is to do with hangovers – or lack thereof. And yes, it’s true, you’re much less likely to get a hangover from natural wines, though if you drink enough of any type of alcohol, you will undoubtedly suffer to some extent the next morning. But natural wines offer an alternative that allow you to relax and have some fun, without paying the price for it the next day. Here’s why, plus a few tips for finding wines that you won’t regret drinking later.
The main reason why we feel so bad after drinking too much wine is because of the alcohol in it, obviously. But sometimes even just a small amount of wine can produce an adverse reaction by your body. I find this to be especially true for wines that are cheap and mass-produced. This is because of the amount of sulphur dioxide (SO2), a preservative, that’s been added and its effect on your body’s ability to process alcohol.
SO2 is a natural by-product of fermentation in wine, though it’s only produced in negligible amounts by yeast. The majority of the SO2 in the final product therefore comes from additions. Winemakers have the option of adding at multiple point in the winemaking process, such as just after the grapes are picked, following fermentation, during maturation and just prior to bottling. The decision of when and how much to add will depend on the winemaker and their grapes’ perceived needs. Many winemakers add SO2 to keep their total free sulphur at a certain level and thus maintain a certain level to protect against microbes and oxidation i.e. they take the naturally occurring SO2 into account; others add it in a more prescriptive fashion. The upper limit for SO2 additions in Australia is 250 parts per million (ppm), so total additions shouldn’t exceed this. Organic wines have their own set limits which, though lower than conventional standards, are still quite high, in my opinion.
Natural wine is generally lower in SO2 compared to either conventional or organic wines. In natural winemaking, it’s often only added at bottling (if at all) and even then, in very limited amounts.
The reason why I name SO2 as the culprit when it comes to hangovers is because it plays a disruptive role in our body’s ability to metabolise alcohol. It depletes glutathione (GSH), an antioxidant that’s produced in all of our cells. GSH plays an important role in preventing oxidative stress, particularly in the liver, where it helps in the process of excreting toxins, including alcohol.
Alcohol metabolism is a two-step process. The first step is the conversion of ethanol to acetaldehyde, so that it can be removed via the liver. However, acetaldehyde is a far more potent toxin than ethanol, so ideally the body will remove it as quickly as possible. When GSH is depleted, the process of removing acetaldehyde becomes significantly less efficient. If we run out of GSH before we’ve fully metabolised all of the acetaldehyde, it’s far more likely to enter the bloodstream, causing headaches and nausea.
It’s these headaches and nausea that prevent many of us from being fully productive the next day, costing us valuable time and money. In fact, our loss of productivity from hangovers has been estimated to cost the Australian economy between $3 and $6 billion annually.
Around 4% of the global population also suffer from sulphite sensitivities. Symptoms include bronchoconstriction, wheezing, dyspnea, nausea, stomach cramps, diarrhoea, urticaria/angiodema, diaphoresis, hives, laryngeal oedema, generalised itching and swelling, tingling sensations, flushing, hypotension, cyanosis, shock and loss of consciousness. Asthma sufferers are at even greater risk of developing these symptoms.
SO2 can also play quite a big role in determining a wine’s flavour. Smaller additions help to keep it tasting fresh and pleasant, whilst killing off bugs that might lead to spoilage. Too much though, and the flavour can be way off-key. I tried a wine when I was doing sommelier training that had so much added SO2 that it was like being smacked in the face with a confected fruit bomb. It was anything but appealing. Wines with less sulphur, by comparison, tend to have more of an easy flow and a balance of sweet and savoury flavours; they’re more reminiscent of food and pair with it more easily.
Some critics who argue that it’s impossible to make wines that are sound without adding a lot of sulphur. I would counter-argue that the greater concentration of polyphenols (antioxidants that contribute flavour and colour to plant-based foods) in organically, biodynamically or ecologically grown grapes, compared to conventionally grown grapes, act as natural preservatives, mitigating the need for large SO2 additions. Natural wines are rarely filtered and never fined, which means that the polyphenols remain intact. Additionally, many natural winemakers tend to pick their grapes earlier than conventional winemakers. In doing this, they preserve the grape’s natural flavour balance, create a fresher-tasting wine, and enhance the antioxidant capability of the polyphenols.
So how long can you keep a natural wine open for? It depends- what varietal it’s made from, when it was picked, how it’s been made and stored, alcohol, skin contact, time since bottling- it’s an endless list. However, I would have to say that, in general, I have found that well-made natural wines tend to last longeronce they are opened than their conventional counterparts. I’ve tried natural wines made with absolutely no sulphur additions that were almost 30 years old and tasted positively young.
This is because they are so chock-full of complex polyphenols that they’re protected from oxygen inherently, making them much more stable.
So how much sulphur dioxide is too much?
I tend to look for natural wines with less than 30ppm added. Unfortunately it’s not a requirement to specify how much SO2 has been added on wine labels, so finding out what the sulphur additions are often takes a little bit of digging around. Not all winemakers measure free sulphur but most will have a pretty good idea of how much has been added, so should be able to answer your questions, if you can ask them firsthand.
If I’m in a new wine region and am interested in visiting a winery but I’m not completely sure about their practices, I often email or call ahead and ask a few questions, to avoid disappointment. There’s nothing worse than getting somewhere, trying the first couple of wines and realising that you’ve wasted your time and energy, not to mention the winery’s, which a little bit of research could have prevented.
Good sommeliers and wine buyers with a commitment to a natural focus will buy wines that are low in added sulphur inherently – even if they don’t necessarily ask exactly how much has been added, they’ll be able to taste it and avoid those that taste confected from its addition.
Once you’ve started paying attention to the amount of sulphur dioxide in your wine, you’ll never be able to drink those sulphur-laden concoctions again. Your palate and your preferences will change. And (provided that you don’t go overboard) you’ll be able to avoid the hangover that’s inevitably lurking at the end of every sulphur-laden bottle.
Want some more tips on how to avoid a hangover when dining out? Click here.