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Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sulfites (But Were Afraid to Ask)

I am pretty sure that most of you have wondered, at least once, about the note on wine labels saying `contains sulfites`.  And, although most often this question is fully forgotten a few minutes after sipping the first glass of wine (especially if this is a good one!!), it is quite an interesting and important subject. That’s why I’d like to explain you a bit about what sulfites really are, how they affect wine taste and what kind of effect do they have on human body.


Sulfites Preserve and Protect Wine

But, let’s start from scratch:  What are Sulfites? (a.k.a “sulphites”)

Sulfites are preservatives with antiseptic and antioxidant powers, present not only in wine but in many other food products such as jams, fruit juices, dried fruits and oil products.

In wine, some of them are naturally produced during alcoholic fermentation and are not required be reported on the label. However, additional sulphites (especially the sodium bisulphite) are frequently added at different times and with different purposes.

Before Fermentation.

When the grapes arrive in the winery sulfitation prevents the oxidation of the juice, limits the growth of bacteria and allows the yeast to initiate a proper and correct fermentation; in the vinification of red wines, this addition enhances colour extraction from the grapes skins during maceration and has a stabilizing effect over time.   Yes, those are some big words I've learned about the wine making process.  In short:  It helps grapes become wine, keeps the grape juice from spoiling and helps the yeast do its work.  Plus, it helps give wine its color, while keeping the wine steady.

After Fermentation.

After the yeast has done its work, and converted the sugars to alcohol, sulphur is used to store wine and to limit oxidation.  Remember, too much oxygen (over time) is bad for wine.  You've left a bottle of wine open overnight before and the next day it smelled like vinegar, right?  That's from exposure to oxygen.

220px-Sulfite-ion-2D-dimensionsTechnically it is possible to completely avoid the use of additional sulphites, during wine production, but this is extremely rare.  Why?  Because no winemaker would ever run such a huge risk of ruining a year of work.  Thus, they use sulfites to protect their investment and ensure the quality of the wine.

Sulphur has an essential role in wine production and preservation and it just requires an experienced handling and gentle doses.

How Much Sulfites are in Wine?

Luckily, both in US and Europe limits on sulphites quantities are quite strict: in US, wines cannot contain more than 350 mg/liter of sulphites, and wines with more than 10mg/liter must have the warning note. In Europe limits are even tighter being 150 mg/l for red wines and 200 mg/l for white wines, which rise to 250 mg/l for sweet wines.

Do Sulfites have a taste or smell?

In regards to taste, sulphur normally does not have effect on wine aromas and flavors although, sometimes the formation of molecules of hydrogen sulphide can cause a bit of a particular smell, often described as “closed” (and technically called reduction) that can become persistent and can be recognised on the palate as well.

Do Sulfites Cause Headaches?

And what about sulphur’s effects on human body? Well I have to admit that sulphur and its derivatives are certainly not among the substances recommended by nutritionists, but they are not even the most damaging among the preservatives used by the food industry.

And the attribution of headaches to these substances is just a false myth: if that was the case, there would be plenty of other foods such as shellfish , dried fruit and fruit juices generating the same disorder (and with much less pleasure)!  Note:  Sweet, sugary wines tend to trigger headaches in some people.  A tip to avoid “wine headaches” is to drink a glass of water between each glass of wine.

So if I had to sum up my words about sulfites, I’d say….yes, it is important being aware of sulfites, but no, you should not decrease your wine consumption for those.

Enjoy your glass (or glasses) of wine.  And, if it’s not “off” (or spoiled) you can thank sulfites for it!


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