What are Sulphites in Wine?
You may have seen “no sulphites” written on wine labels, particularly in recent years, when natural, organic and biodynamic wine trends have been on the rise. Let’s break things down.
What are sulphites?
- Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a compound that acts as a preservative; sulphites refer to any and all forms of sulphur, which is very often used to keep wine fresh
- One of the by-products of fermentation in sulphur, so whether sulphites are added by the winemaker or not, all wine contains some, if even the tiniest amount of sulphites
- Unless wines have a negligible amount of sulphites (from fermentation), they must legally be labelled with “contains sulphites” or as having “preservative 220”
- In addition to preservative properties, sulphites act as an antiseptic; in other words, they aid in keeping harmful micro-organisms out of barrels and bottles
Before sulphites were added in the winemaking process (before germ theory and bacteria were understood), ancient Romans knew that cleaning barrels with sulphur and lighting candles around winemaking storage helped to keep their equipment clean
Are sulphites good or bad for you?
- Unless you are one of the few unlucky people who are allergic to sulphites, or if you have asthma and are more sensitive to them, sulphites are not harmful
- Some people believe sulphites in wine give them a headache, though there is no scientific evidence to support this; if true, there are more sulphites used in white wine, rosé and particularly sweet wine making, so this could be why these wines are more prone to making your head pound rather than red wine; more likely, though, it’s a little something called alcohol
- Sulphites are used in many other products, like dried fruit, and in much higher amounts than wine, so if you have an issue with them you likely already know
Most winemakers add sulphites to wine (which will be listed on the label) to help preserve expressions of the fruit and help prevent spoilage; wines with little to no sulphites are less stable and more prone to going off quicker
What role do sulphites play in wine?
- Winemakers have been using sulphur to help stabilise wine for centuries; only a small amount is needed, but it makes a big difference to winemakers who sell a product that can otherwise be quite fickle and prone to spoilage and oxidisation
- Since the 70s, winemakers have started using less and less sulphites, and in the past few years, we have seen some winemakers (many who are part of the minimal intervention and natural wine movement) shift towards using little to no preservatives
- Having said this, as mentioned, sulphites are a natural by-product of fermentation so no wine is truly free of them
- Proponents of no-sulphites-added aregue that omitting sulphites allows the true expression of the wine to come through; sometimes, this is true, and minimal sulphite wines can be quite vibrant and bold
- While these wines can be quite fun, they are also much more likely to spoil; this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try them, but if you do, only buy them at a reasonable price and drink them immediately – these are fun, casual wines meant for enjoying with friends; when it comes to the serious stuff, it’s safe to say that sulphites have an important role to play
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