Following on from Winemaker Stew's very popular Vegan Wine posting, he has turned his attention to the issue of sulphites in wine.
25 Jan 2017 2 Comments
We get a lot of questions about the use of sulphur in wine, mainly along the lines of “Is there any sulphur in your wines?” and “Why is there sulphur in your wines?” So I thought I might take a little time to explain the role of sulphur in wine and when we need it.
Firstly, there is always sulphur in wine, even in wines that claim to be sulphur-free. This is because the yeast that convert the sugar from grapes into alcohol produce small amounts of sulphur as a by-product.
Sulphites are used for both their anti-microbial and anti-oxidant properties. I don’t want to get too technical here, so I will simply say that sulphites scavenge oxygen to help keep wines fresh both during production and when in bottle. The anti-microbial action is a little more complicated. The effect here depends on the pH of the wine, which is a measure of the acidity. The lower the pH of the wine, the less sulphites are required to protect the wine, as sulphites are more active at lower pHs.
So what wines have the least amount of sulphites? Here are my general tips to avoid sulphites in wines:
Drink red and bottle fermented sparkling wine
Red wines will generally have less sulphites than white wines as red wines are protected somewhat by their tannins. Traditional method sparkling wines cannot have high levels of sulphites due to the requirement of undertaking a secondary fermentation in bottle. Sulphites would prevent this from occurring if too high, so these wines are generally low in sulphites (a small addition may be made during the disgorging process).
Drink wines that are dry
Sweeter wines generally need higher levels of sulphites to prevent bacteria or yeast from metabolising them.
Drink wines from cooler regions
Well, this is very convenient news for us Tasmanians. Wines from our State, generally speaking, have the lowest pHs in the country due to our cooler climate. So we in theory should need less sulphites in our wines to achieve the same level of protection as wines from other regions that have higher pHs.
Drink wines from high quality producers
Yes, this usually means that the wines are more expensive. However, fruit that arrives at the winery from the vineyard in excellent condition needs less or no intervention. Good producers also understand the science of wine, and know exactly how much sulphites a given wine needs for the type of wine it is.
Now for the kicker... the sulphites in wine are not really a big deal. No, they do not give you headaches, and no, you are not allergic to them. Sulphites cannot provoke an immune response, which is required for something to be an allergy. Moreover, the levels present in most wines are not even worth discussing from a health perspective.
It is possible that you are sensitive to sulphites (believed to be approximately 1% of the population), and to some people this is a serious condition. However, this manifests itself in ways more similar to asthma with symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness and coughing. It is more than likely that you would have discovered your sensitivity to sulphites well before wine due to the comparatively small amounts in wine compared to other regular food and drinks. For example, at Josef Chromy nearly every white wine ever produced here has had under 150ppm total sulphur dioxide, and nearly every red wine has had under 100ppm total sulphur dioxide. French fries contain around 1900ppm! We have even produced wines that classify as preservative free (<20ppm).
So if sulphites aren't the villain...?
Now that we have determined that sulphites are not the villain, what is it in wine that can give you those big headaches, congestion, and feeling like you have been hit by a truck? Well, the answer is most likely biogenic amines. These substances do provoke immune responses.
A winemaking process called malolactic fermentation is a common source of amines. I won’t delve too far into the details, but all red wines go through this process, as do many Chardonnays and sparkling wines. Aromatic whites such as Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris are unlikely to have undertaken this process.
So straight away you can see the problem here. People are avoiding white wines, which they rightly believe have more sulphites, to avoid getting a headache. We now know this is not caused by sulphites. However, the red wines they are changing to contain high levels of these biogenic amines, which are more likely to be a cause of their headaches.
For those that love to read:
There are other reasons for experiencing a headache after drinking wine. However, what I can say for certain, is that it is not the sulphites!
*PS don’t waste your money on tablets or drops that you can put into wines that claim to remove the sulphites and reduce your headaches. As you are now aware, sulphites don’t cause headaches to begin with, and equally importantly, these products don’t even work. What they are adding is hydrogen peroxide (H202) - the same hydrogen peroxide that is a bleaching agent, disinfectant and oxidiser. The hydrogen peroxide does indeed react with the free sulphites and removes them, but after a short period of time, the wine re-equilibriates and releases more free sulphites from the bound sulphites in the wine, so you are back to where you started. You can keep on adding hydrogen peroxide until there is no sulphite left, but every time you make an addition, you will also be ruining the wine by oxidising all the flavours and stripping the wine of all aromatics.
Thanks for reading!
- Winemaker Stew
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