There’s a rumour going round in the outré world of artisanal alcohol consumption that natural wine won’t give you a hangover – presuming of course that you drink a hangover’s worth of the wine in the first place.

I have to tell you that it’s just not true.

It is not true because it contains alcohol, a toxin, which if ingested in sufficient quantities dehydrates the body and consequently impairs its proper functioning.

That said, natural wine may just give you more of a fighting chance of recovery on those dreadful Dixonian days than a bog-standard supermarket bottle would.

Why so? Because of its relative absence of sulphur dioxide.

What is sulphur dioxide?

Sulphur dioxide is a chemical compound. It is widely used as a preservative in the food and drinks industry. It’s used in the preservation of dried fruits; it’s even used to keep fresh fruit looking fresh. Those little packs of sliced apple in the supermarket – have you ever wondered how they stay white rather than oxidising and going all orangey-brown?

Sulphur dioxide (as in ‘contains sulphites’) is also used in winemaking. It has been for centuries. As long ago as the Roman era winemakers would burn sulphur candles in their amphorae wine vessels before filling them with wine; although they didn’t know how it stopped the wine from spoiling, they knew it did. The practice was then adopted by 16th century English and Dutch importers who did the same with their oak barrels.

Nowadays it’s usually added in synthetic, powdered form at various stages of the winemaking process – just after the grapes have been crushed, after fermentation, or just before bottling. These are the stages when the wine is most likely to oxidise and spoil.

Less scrupulous or more risk-averse winemakers will add it at all three stages. Natural winemakers distinguish themselves by adding only a minimal amount of sulphur during the whole operation, usually at bottling.

Some diehards use no sulphur at all. From a commercial point of view this is tantamount to madness. From a natural winemaking point of view, it is almost the Holy Grail.

How does this relate to the bastard behind my eyes?

Experiments have shown that sulphur dioxide messes with the action of a compound called glutathione. When the body processes booze, one set of enzymes converts alcohol to acetaldehyde. Glutathione then kicks in to convert acetaldehyde into acetate, which the body find easier to excrete.

Sulphur dioxide inhibits glutathione, which means acetaldehyde hangs around, which is not what you want: it’s up to 30 times more toxic than alcohol, hence the bastard behind the eyes, the nausea, the insuperable sense that your family and friends “are leagued in a barely contained conspiracy of silence about what a shit you are”, as Kingsley Amis puts it.

So, all other things being equal, if you want to keep the risk of the unpleasantness outlined above to a minimum, you will assuredly fare better with wine that is ‘natural’, rather than ‘conventional’.

One place you can do this in the very near future (assuming that you’re reading this before December 3), is at the William Morris Gallery Late event co-hosted by the Vine Collective:

 

wmg-late-agitate
This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.
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2 thoughts on “Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

  1. Hi Darren, can you please refer us to the paper that shows a link between headaches and SO2? We have found no such thing and for this to be consistent surely people would get far worse hangovers after dried fruit or orange juice consumption or any of the myriad of foods and beverages that have far higher SO2 levels. Our understanding is that SO2 intolerance is limited to respiratory issues and only experienced by a percentage of acute asthmatics. Also, by the way, glutathione is not an enzyme – it is a natural antioxidant found in grapes.

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    • How’s it going, Matt? This is going back a bit but it’s a point Isabelle Legeron makes in her book, Natural Wine – which is about the liver’s ability to process wine rather than a causal link between ingesting SO2 and having a headache. She cites a paper from 1996 called Sulfur Dioxide: A Potent Glutathione-depleting Agent, which is credited to the University of Southampton Dept of Human Nutrition. I’ve had an internet browse and haven’t found much along the same lines to be honest, but there we are. Thanks for the correction, by the way. I’ve updated the text. Hope all’s well. Blank Canvas is causing ripples over here I see – high praise from Julia Harding!

      Liked by 1 person

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