What are wine sulfites and are they bad for you?
It’s time to clarify one of the most controversial topics in the wine business that probably most consumers do not fully understand: sulphites.
Why on wine labels we find the note “contains sulphites”? What are wine sulphites? Why are they used in oenology? And, are they dangerous for us?
What are wine sulfites?
First of all, sulphites are essential for the stability and quality of the wine: they are used in oenology for its important antioxidant, preservative and antiseptic properties. They are not present in the grapes in nature, but, some of them can be produced by yeasts during the fermentation as a natural by-product.
Sulphites are also added by winemakers in various steps during the whole vinification and bottling process.
And although sulphur dioxide is one of the most detested chemical components used in oenology, it can be found in many other food products including dried fruits, jams and fruit juices and to date it is considered the most effective and less harmful preservative.
How many sulphites can be found in wine?
The amount of sulphites is regulated by local laws and wines with more than 10mg/l must have a warning note on the label. In US, wines cannot contain more than 350 mg/l of sulphites.
A European Union law of 2009 limits the use of sulphur dioxide to a maximum of 150 mg/l for red wines, 200 mg/l for whites and rosés and to 250 mg/l for sweet wines. Organic wines have to adapt to stricter limits.
Can wine be produced without sulphites?
It is very unusual, but possible. In this case, it is allowed to indicate on the label that the wine “does not contain sulphites” if their total concentration counts for less than 10 mg/l. Technically it is possible to avoid the use of additional sulphites, during wine production. But this is really rare and quite risky for the wine conservation.
However there are still plenty of good options to discover. And tech is here to help: try Wine Picker, a free wine and food matching app for Android and iOS.
Are sulphites dangerous for health?
SO2 is surely not the most dangerous among the preservatives used by the food industry but it’s a chemical compound that can be harmful if ingested in excessive quantity. So its presence in food must be regulated by law below certain limits.
It is also a molecule capable of triggering allergic crises in predisposed subjects; for this reason it is mandatory to indicate on the label its presence in food.
Be aware though, that the idea that it can cause headaches is just a false myth: in fact, if that was the case, there would be plenty of other foods generating the same disorder.
How to reduce the side effects of sulphites?
Sulphur does not affect wine aromas and flavours. Although, sometimes the formation of molecules of hydrogen sulphide can cause a particular smell of reduction, described as “closed” that can be recognised on the nose and palate.
Remember that, an appropriate oxygenation (getting more oxygen into the wine) before consumption (an operation that can also be carried out simply by spinning the glass) evaporates about 30-40% of the free sulphur dioxide contained in the wine reducing reduction smells and any other side effect.