I was giving a brief lecture on the history of wine and around the 15th hour I was really hitting my stride…just kidding. When I got to the 1850’s, when wine makers in the Medoc area of France began adding sulfites to wine to help preserve them, BAM, questions started coming like bees in a vineyard!
“What are sulfites?” “Are they bad for you?” “Why the warning?” “Is that what gives you headaches?” “What if you have asthma?” Wow, who knew these two little words could fire up a crowd?
So, this week’s installment of Griffy on Wine investigates sulfites. First, my disclaimer: I am not a doctor–I haven’t even played one of TV–but from everything I’ve read, unless you are a severe asthmatic or do not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulfites in your body, you’d have nothing to fear from sulfites. A good rule of thumb is if you eat dried fruit without any problems, you’d be good to go with wine as dried fruit has about 10 times more sulfites than wine.
The term “sulfites” is an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide (So2). It’s widely used as a preservative in winemaking and in most of the food industry because of its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. The first reported use of sulfur in wine production was in Germany around 1835. Winemakers would burn sulfur over barrels they used for wine. The method of burning the sulfur to converts it to sulfur dioxide over the barrel, coating the interior. Pour in the wine and then re-top the barrels, keeping them as full as possible to limit the wine’s exposure to oxygen. German wines lasted longer and tasted better, so the French copied the procedure in Medoc in 1855. It’s been Standard Operating Procedure to add So2 to wine ever since.
Now, let me address some of the popular myths about sulfites. To start with, sulfites don’t cause headaches, or at very least medical research hasn’t proved it yet. There are many other compounds in wine such as histamines and tannins that are way more likely to cause a headache than sulfites, not to mention the alcohol. Red wine typically contains less sulfites than white wines. Still, the idea that wines should be avoided because of sulfites is nothing short of bunk! Sulfite levels are regulated. Any wine that contains more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfur dioxide must have the label “contains sulfites.” Maximum levels of So2 that a wine can contain are 160 ppm for red, 210 ppm for white, and 400 ppm for sweet wines.
It is true that sulfites are unnatural addition to the wine making process, but you have to remember that sulfites are also a natural byproduct of the yeast metabolism during fermentation. So even if you don’t add it you’ll still have some So2 in your wine after fermentation.
We’ve come a long way since 1835. We know far more about how the sulfur dioxide breaks down during the wine making process. Our wineries are cleaner, the grapes are better (no rotten fruit), the bottles are higher quality and with better closers (corks, twist offs). All these factors and more helped to greatly reduced the amount of So2 used in the wine making process. Given that the winemaker has very little control over his product once it leaves the vineyard I’ll ingest a little So2 to get a fresh, clean, tasty glass of wine, just like the winemaker intended.
I confess I have not yet tried any “organic” wines yet. And even here you have to be careful; wines made from “organically grown grapes” will still contain sulfites. To completely avoid sulfites, or better said to limit any unnaturally added sulfites, you have to purchase a wine labeled “ORGANIC WINE,” as by U.S. law these wines must not contain any added So2.
If you do try an “organic wine” I’d suggest staying as local as you can. I’d buy a red vs. a white because the tannins in red wine acts as a natural anti-oxidant. Most important: drink it fast, don’t cellar it. If anyone out there does enjoy organic wines, send me a recommendation so I can do a formal taste test.