What Are Sulfites In Wine?
April 10, 2010
Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, have been a part of the wine-making process for over 200 years. The actual process of making wine involves yeast for the fermentation of the grapes. This is a very controlled process however, and once the winemaker gets the wine to a desired balance for flavor, alcohol content, bouquet, etc, the organic process must be halted. By adding sulfites in wine once the desired fermentation point is reached, the fermentation process is stopped. This allows for the wine to remain bottled for a long amount of time without continuing to be changed by the fermentation initialized by the wine-maker.
If no sulfites were added, the wine would not be able to be produced in such large quantities, shipped around the country and sold. Imagine how long it takes for the wine to be made, bottled, shipped, shelved, purchased, and finally to be tasted by the consumer. Without the stabilizing effect of sulfites in wine, it simply would not last long enough as the same product that left the winery. Wine sales would be limited to those living within close proximity to wineries and the wines themselves would have to be drunk shortly after being made.
The wine industry regulates sulfites in the wine-making process. The United States Department of Agriculture, which enforces regulations, allows for up to 350 parts per million as the legal limit for sulfite content. Regular wines generally have somewhere between 40 - 125 parts per million. Red wines usually contain less sulfites than white wine.
Though most other wine-producing countries regulate the sulfite usage in the wine-making process, none impose limits as to the addition of sulfites with regards to the "organic" labeling. For wines labeled organic, the sulfite amount is restricted to 10 parts per million and even those 10 parts must be entirely naturally occurring. No additional sulfites may be added to the wine during the wine-making process for a wine to carry the "organic"' label. As this is extremely hard to do while being able to ensure a consistent product, very few wine-makers go this route.
An alternative to the "organic" label is the "made with organically grown grapes" label. This is also regulated by the USDA, but not as restrictively. The limit is up to 100 parts per million to be able to use this label. Both "organic" and "made with organically grown grapes" must not use any pesticides or chemicals in the growing of their grapes. The only real difference between the two is the addition of sulfites and the level of sulfites allowed.
The FDA estimates about 0.4% of the population is highly allergic to sulfites, but many more could potentially just be sulfite sensitive. If when drinking wine you experience cramps, hives, or burning of skin this could be an indication you are sensitive to sulfites. It might benefit you to try wines made from organically grown grapes for the lower levels of sulfites.
Sulfites are not only common in wine but also in the rest of nature. You can find sulfites in jams, cakes, syrups, fruit juices, and pizza dough among other places. The level of sulfites vary from 6 parts per million up to 6,000 parts per million. Your body actually even produces sulfites to the tune of about 1,000mg per day. ("Parts per million" is the term for measurement with sulfites. To get an idea of what that means, 100 parts per million equals 0.01%)
The addition of sulfites in wine is more or less an imbedded process at this point in wine's history. It seems to be safe for consumption and is found in commonly consumed foods and even in the human body. It even has been shown to reduce the effects of aging in some cases. Perhaps you can make your next toast to sulfites.