By Sam Johnson
This week Sam takes a look at Sulphites in wine, what they are, and why you should care.
The year is 2005. It’s a month before Christmas, a time of year that is so perfectly suited to nights in with a bottle of Red that it’s hard to imagine the season without it. But this year is different, something has appeared on the bottle that hasn’t been there before; two words that make the whole idea of putting your feet up with an overfull glass of liquid heaven seem more dangerous, something worthy of concern.
The offending words?
As of November 2005, it has been a legal requirement within the EU for producers to label bottles with a Sulphur Dioxide/Sulphite warning if the wine contains any more than 10mg/l. Ever since, there has been a lot of talk and a lot misunderstanding about sulphites in wine: What actually are they? Are they harmful? Why do winemakers use them? Do they cause hangovers? Should I be drinking sulphite free wine?
So, without trying to get overly scientific, let’s start off by clearing up the facts of the matter:
- Sulphites is the term used for Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
- SO2 is a preservative used in winemaking due to its antibacterial and antioxidant properties.
- SO2 is also a natural by-product of the fermentation process.
- SO2 is widely used in many other food industries, not just winemaking.
In other words, sulphites do occur naturally in wines as a result of the fermentation process (yes, even in organic wines), but the majority of winemakers choose to add additional SO2 to help keep undesirable yeasts and bacteria at bay, as well as helping to protect the wine from oxidation, retaining it’s fruit integrity and preventing ‘browning’.
So if they’re so helpful why all the fuss? Well, it is true that Sulphur Dioxide can cause severe allergic reactions in some people. However, it is estimated that only around 1% of the population are affected by this sulphite intolerance.
It’s reasonably safe to assume that you would already be aware of this by know! Let me give you an example: the vast majority of modern wines that “contain sulphites” typically contain around 20-200PPM (Parts per Million). That’s an awful lot lower than is found in dried fruit (500-3,000PPM) or French Fries (1500-1900PPM)! So if you can eat a handful of raisins without any problems, or binge on take-away chips without so much as the feeling of regret afterwards, then you should be more than ok with wine.
Oh and no, they don’t cause your hangovers. There is currently no scientific evidence to suggest that sulphites are the cause of your headaches after a heavy night on the wine. The most probable explanation is the volume of alcohol you consumed and dehydration caused by a lack of water intake during the night!
Where To Go From Here
So after establishing what sulphites do and what they don’t, where do you go from here?
Well really it’s a very personal choice. Sulphites have different effects on different people, and we all have our reasons for choosing to avoid or ignore them, what’s most important is the enjoyment gained from any glass of wine.
While wines may look scary with “CONTAINS SULPHITES” emblazoned on the side, it’s really just the choice of the winemaker to go about his craft in the most predictable and risk-free way possible with the aim of delivering as many fault-free, consumer-friendly wines as possible to your wine rack.
Low or Zero Added Sulphur wines on the other hand can be a little less predictable, but who wants predictable? Right? There can be just as much enjoyment gleaned from a glass of Low Sulphite wine as any regular bottle and it’s all a matter of personal tastes and preferences, plus it’s a huge bonus for those who find sulphites troublesome in one way or another!
And so, despite the wishy-washy “everyone’s a winner” conclusion, I hope that I’ve been able to shed some light on Sulphites and why you can choose to care about them or not! Good wine is good wine, sulphites or no sulphites, and that should never be forgotten. The world of wine can sometimes be daunting and over-technical but, my God, it tastes good! Doesn’t it?
Next Week: Reasons Why You Should Be Excited By Austrian Wines
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