Why Wine Contains Sulfites

Why do wines have added sulfites?

What do Sulfites do, anyways? #

SO2, Sulfur Dioxide is a naturally occurring part of the winemaking process. It is a byproduct of making alcohol. However, it can also be added at a few different winemaking points to preserve the freshness of the grapes and wine.

When Grapes Arrive into The Winery #

When grapes arrive in the winemaking facility, they can be sprayed with SO2 to prevent fermentation from starting early – sometimes some of the grapes may have split and juice could run out. That’s all it takes for the tiniest bit to start fermenting and making wine. That juice has sugar in it which interacts with yeast naturally on the grapes. That yeast will eat the sugar and create CO2 and alcohol as a result. Obviously this is a very small scale here, but the smallest amount of that can create bad wine. SO2 prevents microbes from spoiling the wine at this stage, and any other time it’s used.

Winemaking Techniques #

Additionally, during a process called Carbonic Maceration, grapes can be briefly coated in SO2 to remove oxygen from a fermenting tank. This allows for intracellular fermentation to take place. The grapes at the bottom of the tank are crushed by the weight of the grapes at the top, this releases their juice which starts to ferment. The top has been sprayed with SO2 so there’s no oxygen. But what happens instead as that the CO2 that’s produced as a result of the bottom fermenting is that the grapes start to ferment inside the skins. Once that juice gets to about 1.2% ABV the skins split and the juice runs off. Pretty cool, huh? Again – the purpose of spraying SO2 on top is to remove the oxygen from the tank. It’s not sprayed throughout this process, only enough to remove the oxygen from the tank.

Bottling #

Another opportunity where SO2 comes into contact with wine, other than during the fermentation stages when wine is naturally made, is at bottling. There’s an air gap in every bottle of wine. So what some winemakers do is top off the wine with SO2 to remove oxygen. Oxygen will cause damage to the wine and remove the fruit flavors, and allow harmful (mostly to flavor not your health) microbes into the wine, so SO2 gas is sprayed on top just before putting a cork in or a screw cap on. No air. No problems. In theory, anyway – too much SO2 can also cause the wine to go bad. So it’s a delicate dance.

No Sulfite Free Wines #

Sulfites remove bad microbes from wine. Sulfites occur naturally during the winemaking process, so there’s no completely “sulfite free” wine. Sorry to break it to you. There are, however, “lower sulfite” wines that may not add any sulfites at all, often called NSA or No Sulfites Added – but none that are completely sulfite free.

Sulfites only labeled on wine? #

Now – in the US and other parts of the world, it’s required to put Sulfites are in a wine if more than 10 PPM (parts per million) are present, but only in wine! That’s really not a lot. The FDA may or may not have a thing against alcohol – they required a label for sulfites in wine only, during the time of prohibition, supposedly to try and scare people away from drinking it. I will leave you to form your own opinion, but I will also tell you that it’s not required for dried fruits to label sulfites, which have about 100 times more sulfites than the amount of sulfites that are in an entire bottle of wine.

Aren’t sulfites what give me headaches? #

Likely? No. I am NOT a doctor, especially your doctor, so definitely ask him/her. However, I will say that according to research, only about ~1% of the population is allergic to sulfites, and typically it’s a lot worse than a bad headache — it’s hives.

If you get a headache from drinking only certain types of wine – it’s likely that the wine you’re getting headaches from is either inexpensive and thereby likely (but not always) has more sugar in it, or you often drink higher alochol wines and don’t hydrate enough. Headaches come from dehydration. Sugar dehydrates you faster, on top of a high alcohol content (hem-hem to those cheap Australian or Californian cabs you love so much). So make sure to be drinking lots and lots water.

But I can have certain types of wine… #

I’ve heard from a couple people who went to Spain and said they could drink tons of wine there and it didn’t both them. There could be a few reasons for this – first and foremost, they were probably drinking higher quality wines. Even the table wine there is good quality and will likely have less sugar (because they are catering to the locals more so than Americans – who love sweet). Second, I imagine that if you have the budget to go to Spain and you’re going to wineries, you are able to pay to go to high quality wineries – which again, won’t have a ton of residual or sugars.

Third, I also think that while people are traveling, many naturally drink more water because they know they’re walking around and moving and more leisurely living. Rather than being chained to a desk all day, constantly drinking water and filling up a water bottle. That’s just a theory though.

What do you think about sulfites in wine?

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