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Sulphites in Wine

Whilst carrying out wine tastings I often get asked about sulfites in wine.
This is due to the fact that it states on all wine labels that the product “contains sulfites” (or sulphites).
The labelling of food products containing sulphite became law following a number of deaths that occurred in the USA some years ago.
Sulphites can have a bad effect on people suffering from ailments such as Asthma, and these people should be aware.
There can be 10 – 20 times more sulphites in the industrially produced wines that are so popular in the UK. Just look at the chart below and compare Dry Red wine with Commercial Wines.
As you can see good quality wine contains, by far, the lowest amounts of sulphite when compared with industrial produced wines and processed foods.

Sulphites in Wine

How much sulphur is in wine?
It depends on the production method, style and the colour of the wine. Sulphites in wine range from No-Added Sulphur 10 – 40 PPM (Parts per Million) as in Californian organic wines, to about 350 PPM in commercially produced wines.
If you compare wine with other foods, its placed far lower on the spectrum.

  • For example, many dry red wines have around 50PPM.
  • White wines and Rosé wines do not contain natural anti-oxidents because they are not left in contact with their skins after crushing as red wines are. For this reason, they are more prone to oxiditation and tend to receive larger doses of sulphur dioxide compared to red wines.
  • Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulphur to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.
  • Wines that are warmer in temperature release free sulphur compounds (the nasty sulphur smell) and can be “Fixed” simply by decanting and chilling the wine.

Why are sulphites in wine?
Its main functions are to inhibit or lill unwanted yeasts and bacteria, and protect wine from oxidation.
Wineries have been using sulphur around wine for a long time, as far back as the Roman times, when winemakers would burn candles made of sulphur in empty wine containers (called Amphorae) to keep the wines from turning to vinegar. Sulphur started to be used in winemaking (instead of just cleaning wine barrels) in the early 1900’s to stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing. It also helps in the extraction of pigments in wine, making red wines” redder”.

Can I smell sulphite in wine?
Very sensitive tasters have been noted to smell sulphite in wine at around 50PPM. What is interesting is that the warmer the wine, the more molecular sulphur it releases. This is why some wines can have a nasty cooked-egg aroma when you open them.
You can fix this issue by decanting your wine and chilling it to the correct serving temperature.

Should I be concerned about sulphite in wine?
If you have a sensitivity to foods, you should absolutely try to eliminate sulphite from your diet. Eliminating wine could be necessary, however perhaps you could start with the obvious culprits like processed foods before you write off wine.
When you do purchase wine make sure it is a better quality product if you want less sulphites. Check to see where the wine is bottled if it is at source it will generally have less sulphites than those bottled in the UK.

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