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Wine and Sulfites

by Staff Writer - C. Barnett | July 10, 2011

Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that may occur naturally or may be added as an enhancer and preservative. Sulfites or sulfur dioxide is a fruit preservative widely used in dried fruits as well as wine. Sulfur is abundant in various forms in all living things.

Sulfites are naturally present in wine. During the winemaking process, manufactured sulfites are added to wine to prevent bacterial growth and to protect against oxidation. The practice of using sulfites as a preservative is not a new idea. Winemakers have been adding additional sulfites to wines for ages. The Greeks and Romans used sulfur candles to sterilize their wine barrels. Sulfur prevents damage to the wine and helps prevent organisms from growing in the wine. This addition allows the wine to last longer and allows the wine to age and develop all of their complex flavors. If sulfites were not added to the winemaking process then the wine could turn bad in a matter of months. Using sulfites is done by winemakers worldwide. Due to regulations in the United States, only when foreign wines are sold in the United States do they have to be labeled with the sulfite warning. It is the same wine with a different label containing the sulfite warning.

The Effects of Sulfites

The amount of added sulfites are small and they are measured in parts per million (ppm). The legal limit for some foods goes as high as 6,000 ppm. For wine, the maximum amount allowed is 350 ppm, but most wines contain much less sulfite with the average ranging from 25 to 150 ppm. The law in the United States requires that if a wine contains 10 ppm or more total sulfites, the label must carry the disclaimer warning “contains sulfites”. This label designation was intended to protect people that may be allergic to sulfites (an estimated 1% of the United States population). People with asthma are in the most vulnerable group. Signs of sulfite sensitivity include: abdominal pain, bronchial constriction, dizziness, headaches, nasal congestion and skin flush.

Sulfites in Food and Wine

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Just as wine contains sulfites, many foods contain sulfites but at an even higher level than wine. Examples of foods that may contain sulfites include: Apple Cider, Baked Goods, Beer, Canned Vegetables, Chips, Condiments, Dried Fruit, Dehydrated or Peeled Potatoes, Fresh or Frozen Shrimp, Grape Juice, Gravies, Guacamole, Jams, Lemon and Lime Juice, Maraschino Cherries, Molasses, Pickled Foods, Soup Mixes, Tea, Trail Mix and Vegetable Juices.

More sulfites are added to white wines than to red wines. During the winemaking process, white wine grapes are fermented after their skins have been separated. Red wines are fermented in contact with their skins. The red grape skins pass on tannins during fermentation which act as a natural preservative so less sulfite is required to be added.

No Sulfite Wine

To be labeled a “no sulfite wine”, the wine can contain no more than 1 ppm. A wine without added sulfites might be drinkable by some people with only a mild allergy to sulfites. Because these wines without sulfites are very perishable, they should be drunk soon and not aged. Usually 18 months is the longest a sulfite-free wine would last. This includes the time the wine spent at the winery, at the wine store, and in your possession.

To create a wine without adding sulfites, the winery has to warn people to drink the wine soon so that when they open the bottle the wine has not spoiled. The second issue with making a wine without sulfites is that sulfites help to keep unwanted organisms in the winery from harming the wine. If a winery is not going to use sulfites, then they have to make sure that their winery is very clean and sterile. The trick is for the winery to prevent contamination from occurring, without using additional sulfites. Some wineries have used a layer of carbon dioxide on the wine or nitrogen gas has also been used during bottling process to kill off oxygen-dependent microbes. Sterile filtration is also an important step in the process. All equipment used such as barrels, pipes, and tanks must be kept perfectly clean at all times. It is a lengthy and meticulous process for a winery to follow to create a “no sulfite wine”.

Finding Sulfite Free Wine

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To find a wine that is sulfite free or with the lowest level of sulfites, you need to look for Organic Wine. The wine label will note “Organic Wine” and these wines are produced from organically grown grapes without the addition of chemicals such as sulfites or sulfur dioxide. Another wine to look for is Dry Red Wines because they contain the lowest sulfite content, followed by Dry White Wines. Wines that are highest in sulfites are Sweet White Dessert Wines, followed by Blush Wines and Semi-Sweet White Wines.

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