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Sulfites and Wine

by David on June 20, 2009

We get lots of questions about sulfites, and hope that this information is helpful.

Why does wine have sulfites?

The simple answer is that they’re a naturally occurring by-product of the fermentation. But that’s not the whole answer. World wide, most wineries add sulfur dioxide (SO2) during winemaking as a preservative, as has been done for centuries. It’s an anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial agent. It keeps the color bright, fruit flavors fresh and prevents spoilage. The best wineries add very small amounts. There are stronger preservatives we may legally add, such as potassium sorbate, but most producers find that they interfere with aroma and flavor.

Wines bottled with no added sulfites are often quite attractive at the time of release, but tend to have a short shelf-life because the amount of active SO2 produced during fermentation may not be adequate to protect the wine, plus the active sulfur diminishes with time. Most often, as a result, the flavors fade and the wine loses its freshness and begins to brown. This means the wine is less reliably good, and aging it will more likely lead to spoilage than added complexity.

Are sulfites harmful?

Sulfites from any source, food or wine, are harmful to about .25% of the population. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which keeps track of reported sulfite reactions in the U.S., listed just 1,097 such cases between 1985 and 1995. However, those reactions can be extremely serious and sulfite-sensitive individuals know that they must avoid wine, fruit juice, sausages and many processed foods.

Although the threat is small, since 1987 the FDA has required that all wines containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites must bear a warning label. Since wine fermentation naturally produces between 5 and 20 parts per million, the 10 parts per million threshold is exceeded in virtually every wine produced in the USA and abroad. Wines made in the U.S. are permitted to contain as much as 350 parts per million, a level unlikely to occur, as it would be offensive. Some processed foods, in contrast, contain over 1,000 parts per million, because food laws are more lenient.

Only American wineries use sulfites, right?

There’s a common perception that sulfur additions are a modern American technique. Actually, the use of sulfites to preserve wine dates back more than 2,000 years, to when the Romans used sulfur as a method of sealing their barrels and jugs. 15th century German wine laws decreed that sulfur candles be burned inside barrels before filling them with wine, and by the 18th century sulfur candles were regularly used to sterilize barrels in Bordeaux. The sulfur dioxide left on the container would dissolve into the wine, becoming the preservative we call sulfites. Even then, they were clever enough to realize that the sulfur addition improved wine quality. Sulfites have been used to preserve food since the 17th century in Europe and in the U.S. since the early 1800′s.

Why can’t you make good wine without them?

We’re trying, but so far, we’re just not technically sophisticated enough. Due to increased sanitation in modern winemaking, the average sulfite levels in wine are much lower than in the past, and current, more restrictive laws reflect that. Typically Goosecross wines measure about 30 parts per million at bottling time, extremely low levels, so unless you’re one of the .25% of the population, enjoy our wine in good health.

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