Hangover-less wine (and other stories)

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:


This is an edited version of an article that appears in the Winter edition of Root + Bone.

The Vine Collective at William Morris Gallery Lates

What do natural wine, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the Seahawks, poetry, harps and films about supererogatory clowns have in common?

Answer: the Vine Collective at the William Morris Gallery Lates.

Kirsteen McNish and I are co-curating the next three William Morris Gallery Late events as part of our little Vine Collective venture – although she’s doing almost all of the important work; my main job is to make sure we have a plentiful supply of good natural wine to pour throughout the evening.

This is shaping up to be a pretty special event, one that builds on the buzz of our sold-out night at Blackhorse Workshop in E17 a couple of months ago – a night where we brought together such bright stars as Rob Auton, Will Burns, Michael Smith, Gareth Rees, Leo Smee from Chrome Hoof and folk duo The Cat’s Knickers. And lots of good natural wine.

Our next foray, at the William Morris Gallery on October 1, includes a DJ set from illustrator and Seahawks deckshoegazer Pete Fowler, along with two films by the brilliant Shelly Love and a set from poet-harpist Miriam Nash. The gallery will also be presenting its own entertainment offering. Check the gallery website for full details.

We’ll also have these wines. I’ve included the descriptions below:


Cos Frappato 2014 (SICILY, frapatto) – Frappato is an indigenous Sicilian grape. The vines are worked biodynamically Tasting note: Intense, clean aromas of violets and fresias with cherries and cranberries. The mouth is fresh and lively with savoury red fruits and sweet tannins.

Hegarty Chamans 2010 (MINERVOIS, roussanne, marsanne) – A hard-to-find biodynamic white from the Montagne Noire in the Minervois. A blend of roussanne and marsanne. Rich and full-bodied, with notes of honey and stone fruits.

Casa Belfi Colfondo Prosecco 2012 (VENETO, glera) – ‘Colfondo’ literally means ‘residue at the bottom’. This is a naturally cloudy prosecco with sediment. Fermentation is with wild yeasts in stainless steel. Ageing on lees, then bottling on a flower day (a propitious day in biodynamic calendar) without filtration. No sulphur added.

Radford Dale Thirst Gamay 2015 (SOUTH AFRICA, CAPE OF GOOD HOPE, gamay) – Gamay is the Beaujolais grape. This is a rare South African example. Tasting note: crunchy strawberry and cranberry fruits, bracing acidity and light, supple tannins. Think of this as somewhere between a light red and a traditional rosé.

Tragolargo Monastrell 2013 (SPAIN, ALICANTE, monastrell) –
From Alicante, south-east Spain. Monastrell = mourvedre. Organic. No racking, no added SO2, no enzymes, no fining or filtration. Tasting note: Very fruity and complex: spicy, herbal, liquorice, juniper, raspberry, strawberry, fresh tannin and a touch of minerality.

If you’re in the east London area next Thursday, come and have a glass with us.

You can find out about the rest of our William Morris Gallery Lates programme by following us on Twitter – @vine_collective.

I’ll also post updates here when I get a chance.


WM Lates