November 19, 2014

A Quick Guide to Sulfites in Wine

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What are Sulfites in Wine

This guide to sulfites in wine is part of our wine guide series.  Learn about the subtleties of wine, how they affect wine flavor and how compounds such as sulfites can aid in preserving wine.

Sulfites in Wine, Are Wine Sulfites Bad?

What are Sulfites in Wine?

The term Sulfite is used to describe a chemical compound called sulfur dioxide. This compound is common and occurs naturally not only in grapes used to make wine, but in many other fruits as well. In fact, mangos and apricots contain almost 10 times more sulfites than what is found in red wine.

Evidence of sulfite use in early winemaking has been found during excavations around ancient Rome.  Indicating that the Romans discovered its fumigating properties by burning candles around their wine barrels.

Why Sulfites are used in Wine

Winemakers will commonly add additional sulfur dioxide to some wines at the beginning of fermentation in order to increase longevity of the juice. In short, sulfites are used as a preserving agent in wine, which, specifically has antioxidant, anti-browning and antimicrobial properties.  Thus, helping to prevent a wine from turning into vinegar.

How much sulfur dioxide goes into a wine?

The quantity of sulfites present in wine depends on the kind grape varietals being used and what qualities a winemaker is looking to achieve with their product. For example, wines with high acidity require less sulfur dioxide, as the acid already aids in preservation.

Sidenotes: Sulfites in general have gotten a bad rap over the past few decades. In reality, they are not the cause of headaches as rumored to be from drinking red wine.

Some winemakers today include a label on their bottle saying “Contains Sulfides.” This is because a percentage of the United States population is highly allergic to the sulfur dioxide compound, especially those with asthma. Only wines that contain 10 PPM (parts per million) or more of the sulfur dioxide compound are legally required to be labeled in this manner in the US.

What are Sulfites in Wine and are Sulfites bad?Should I be Concerned About Sulfites in Wine?

The short answer is no. If you have known food allergies, or find yourself overly sensitive to certain foods that contain preservatives (like many processed foods or packaged meats), you might do yourself a favor to limit your intake. The same goes for those who may be asthmatic. Just listen to what your body is telling you. Don’t use a headache as an indicator to being overly sensitive to sulfur. The reality is you probably just had too much wine, too much cheese and didn’t drink enough water. The quantity of sulfites in most wine is vanishingly small and typically will not affect most wine drinkers.

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2 Comments

  • Hi! Thanks for the informative article. Our family’s company, Deerfield Ranch Winery, is pioneering the way for low sulfite wines. We call it Clean Wine. If you’re interested you can learn more about it at cleanwine.info

    Cheers!

  • HI,
    Although most winemakers and wine writers believe sulfite is a good preservative in wine, it is not. Sulfite is a poor preservative because it takes a huge dose, more than is used in wine, to actually kill a pathogen. All it does is retard the growth of bacteria, does practically nothing to spores and has no affect on many contaminants that are off flavor and smell components of earlier contamination. What Sulfite is very good at is as an antioxidant. It keeps the wine from prematurely oxidizing during barrel aging and bottling. Bacteria and other contamination is best avoided by good vineyard management, careful picking and sorting of the bunches of grapes and then the grapes themselves, good housekeeping at the winery, avoiding the use of contaminated oak barrels and by good fermentation management. With these techniques SO2 can be kept to a very low level. A small percentage of wine drinkers can be sensitive to as little as 15 ppm (parts per million) SO2. A low level of SO2 in the CLEAN bottled wine is used up by the free oxygen dissolved in the wine become nonreactive SO4. The wine can then be released at less than 14 ppm. It is not necessary to have any more if the wine is free of contaminants. Bacteria in wine during fermentation also creates histamine, which is the cause of red wine headaches. By keeping bacteria levels low the winemaker can avoid histamine in the wine and make wine that does not cause headaches or hangovers in those people so affected.

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