Saturday 16 November 2013

Brimstone and bubbly

“Contains sulphites” (or “sulfites”, if you are American). These two words are like a clang of doom on many a wine label. The fact that wine-makers are obliged to print this notification probably contributes a lot to our growing wariness of sulphites and the belief that they poison our bodies—and give us hangovers.

So I was interested to be invited to try Laurenti, a Champagne that has been popular in France for 90 years but which is new to the UK: the main selling point seems to be that it is low in sulphites and therefore less likely to give you a headache the morning after.

As you know, here at the Institute we like to take a rigorously scientific approach, but I couldn’t think of a way of really putting this to the test. Do you drink a load of Laurenti one night and then an equal amount of a rival brand the next, and see how you feel? Do you get a pair of identical twins to match each other glass for glass across a table and see who feels worst in the morning? In the office of the PR company the girls mulled on this and decided that drinking just the one bottle wouldn’t be enough to give them a hangover anyway. And as one bottle is all I had, I had to give up on the idea of empirical testing.

Sulphites are used in wine to kill bacteria and combat oxidation. I guess we think of the use of them as a regrettable modern industrial technique for mass production, but in fact the yeast that creates the alcohol in wine naturally produces sulphur dioxide during fermentation, so even a wine without any added sulphites will still contain some. Wines that are made virtually sulphite-free tend to come with instructions to store them at low temperatures at all times and consume them very quickly, so you can see why most wine-makers use sulphites. My sister and brother-in-law went to a tasting of sulphite-free wines and pronounced that some of them tasted very peculiar indeed. I wonder if this is just because of the difficulty in stopping them going off at the drop of a hat, rather than any suggestion that we are used to the taste of sulphites? For I get the impression that under normal circumstances we wouldn’t taste sulphites anyway.* In my brief foray into home wine-making (which lasted until the first batch was ready to drink, and I realised how repulsive it all was), I dutifully added sulphury-smelling Campden Tablets (sodium metabisulphate), but could never detect any whiff of them in the finished wine.

The use of sulphur in wine probably goes back to ancient times and was mentioned in a German legal document in 1487; by the 18th century it was being used on an industrial scale. But thanks to advances in wine-making technology, modern wines actually contain less than in the past. Moreover, red wine, which most people probably feel is more likely to give them a hangover, tends to contain less sulphite than white, because the tannins from the grape skins are a natural preservative (and red wines are often more alcoholic, which is also preservative) so less sulphur is needed. The legal EU limits are 160 parts per million for red wine and 210 for white, but any wine containing more than 10 parts per million must feature the warning on the label. Sweet wine actually contains the most (EU limit of 400 ppm), because some of the added sulphur binds with the sugar and loses its protective effect. Presumably for the same reason, dried fruit contains even more—the EU limit is 1,000 ppm—and it is also used in fruit juices made from concentrates.

Some people are allergic to sulphites (the US FDA estimates 1% of people are sulphite-sensitive) and it can be dangerous for asthmatics, but for the rest of us there is not, as far as I am aware, any proof yet that sulphites give you a hangover—although the World Health Organisation does have a recommended consumption limit of 0.7 mg per kilo of body weight. (If a wine actually contained the upper allowance for white wine, the average man would apparently exceed this after drinking just a third of a bottle.) I gather that sulphites are known to destroy vitamin B1, which is needed to metabolise alcohol, so perhaps this is where the hangover idea comes from. If you find that red wine gives you a hangover it may be the naturally occurring tannins or histamines that are doing for you.

If you nevertheless want to avoid sulphites, you could try drinking only very old wines—the sulphur breaks down naturally over time—or switch to spirits, of course.

Or you could drink Laurenti. Founded by Joseph Laurenti in 1923, the house uses only Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes grown on its own estates in the South Champagne district. In addition to low sulphites (just 7 ppm free SO2), the Grande Cuvée that I was tasting is relatively low in sugar, featuring a modest dosage (the sugar added to the wine before the secondary fermentation in the bottle that creates the bubbles). It is a pale gold colour and has a lively mousse that gives it a full but velvety texture on the tongue. The nose is sweet and fruity, but with dark, warm notes in there too; quite complex and balanced. On the palate it is clean and very appley, with a sweet finish on the tongue. Rather than woody depth, it seems to be all about a fresh, juicy hit. I can see that it would be ideal for parties—a good “session” Champagne, if you will. I suspect this is how they are pitching it, hence perhaps the emphasis on low sulphur and the suggestion that this will lessen hangovers…

The Laurenti range is available from Wine Direction. The Grande Cuvée is £34.99 a 70cl bottle, the Grande Cuvée Rosé £36.99 and the Grand Cuvée Tradition (aged for 12 years as opposed to the Grande Cuvée’s three years) £39.99

* Although this organic wine website claims that normal people can taste it at 11 ppm.

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