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Wine and Sulfites: a Matter of Nuance

It also confounds the wine world – with good reason!– not just assertive consumers who wants to know what they are drinking, how the contents of their glass were made, and whether this was carried out with adequate respect for nature. Sulfites are often the subject of these sorts of discussions. We will attempt to provide a lucid yet nuanced elucidation. 

What is Sulphite?

Sulfites are the salts and esters of sulfuric acid. However, the term sulfite is mostly used as a collective term for particular (sulphur containing) chemical compounds.

Why are Sulphites used in the Wine World?

Sulphites play an important role in the winemakers' battle again oxidisation, at least: free sulfites do (FYI: the bit of sulfite that binds with wine components like sugar is called a bound sulfite). Sulfites also prevent new fermentation and unwanted micro-organisms and thus promote stability of flavour and an extended shelf life. Sulphite is used in similar ways in the food industry too, such as E numbers 220 to 228 in potato crisps, dried fruit, pizza, cured meats, etc, ... 

Sulfite can also be used as a sanitising agent or for blocking malolactic fermentation (from malic to lactic acids). Although there are other ways to do this too. In any case, it is essential to understand that sulphite is a by-product of the fermentation of grape juice. As such, sulphite-free wine does not exist. However, wine without added sulphites does indeed exist. Let's explore this further.

What is the Problem?

There are several problems with sulphites. Some people are simply allergic to sulphite. That is one of the reasons why Europe has made it compulsory to include a declaration of sulphite on wine labels, if the wine contains in excess of 10 milligrams of sulphite per litre. When you learn that natural fermentation can cause 30 milligrams per litre, then you understand why nearly all European bottles come with the warning ‘contient des sulfites’.

Given the benefits and properties mentioned above, it is easy to understand the winemaker's motivation to use adequate quantities of sulphites. A few decades ago that would have been the rule rather than the exception, but times have truly changed. Too much sulphite is actually not good for the wine either: it makes it smell like sulfer, gives it a strangely pungent taste as well as an artificial taste and smell. 

Is Sulphite Unhealthy for Humans?

Various studies, including one but the WHO, have concluded that sulphite is not dangerous for most people (with the obvious exception anyone allergic to it, a not insignificant 5% of the population). Sulphite is only dangerous in cases of very high daily doses over an extended period. Meantime, it has also been established that sulphites don't give you headaches. If they did you would also get headaches from eating dried fruits or charcuterie, etc. … Alcohol seems like a much more probable culprit. That aside, it is clear that less sulphite is not necessarily healthier. Indeed, the opposite might be true.

The Situation in 2021

More and more wines are being marketed as being without added sulphite. This is partly a response to market demand, and partly because environmentally aware winemakers want it that way. From our point of view, it is in that duality that lies the sting. Some wineries list ‘no added sulphites’ as their unique selling point and overlook the quality of the wine. But from another vantage point, it both makes sense and is fascinating to watch and taste how talented winemakers are pursuing increasingly 'pure' wines and getting ever better at it, sometimes with amazing results. Healthy grapes and good hygiene do wonders, and they can, for example, render unnecessary the use of sulphite as a sanitising agent.  But this type of wine will always present challenges, as the greatest dangers always reside in storage and transport. Perfect monitoring, at the consumer's premises too, is essential if the wine is not to end up going to the dogs.

Our Opinion

It's extremely nuanced. If 'sulfite-free' is mostly a marketing ploy and the intrinsic quality of the wine is second or third rank, then better not. It is our opinion that the concept of natural wine is misguided in that sense (and I say that with all due respect for honest and good natural wine). If the use of added sulphite is restricted insofar as possible or even eliminated in a conscious pursuit of more natural, pure wines and if this is carried out with the necessary knowledge, experience and caution: we are really happy to taste them! And we'll like some more and others less. In any event, they are different and that only accentuates their intrigue: they make the world of wine that little bit more interesting and contribute to a greater respect for mother earth.