Thursday, December 19, 2013

What are Sulfites?

If you're anything like me, you really enjoy the holiday season. It is especially enjoyable for me because the Uptown is actually shut down for a day and a half. It's the only time all year we can go a whole day and a half without having to worry about anything at work... something those of us in the biz rarely get to do!  There's nothing better than sitting down and relaxing with family, at which point many of us tend to enjoy our wine...

And while enjoying said wine, I often wonder what those two words on the back of the bottle mean: "contains sulfites."  Are they good for you? Bad for you? Do they cause my hangover? So before getting too carried away this season, let's find what it is that sulfites really do!

The short version for sulfites would be to call it a chemical compound that contain sulfite ion. They are essentially used as food preservers or enhancers. In wine, they occur naturally. All wines contain sulphites. They are a naturally occurring by-product of the fermentation of grape sugars by yeasts. The amount is minimal, generally under 10 mg/L, but that means a sulphite-free wine does not exist. Furthermore, adding extra sulphite has become both an accepted and necessary part of modern wine making's battle against the two enemies of wine: bacteria and excessive oxygen. Without sulfites being added to wine, the grape juice would quickly turn to vinegar.

It is common for white wines to contain more sulfites than red wine and for sweeter wines to contain more sulfites than dry wines. Red wines naturally have tannins in them. Tannins are actually stabilizing agents. Almost all red wine also goes through something called malolactic fermentation (common in most red wine varietals and some white, such as chardonnay). Therefore, less sulfites are required to help preserve the bottle.

I know I've heard people say they don't like to drink too much white wine, or even red, because they get headaches. It probably has a lot more to do with the tannins, the histamines, and yes.....the alcohol. You probably consume just as many sulfites through dried fruits, potato chips, fruit juice or even shrimp. There is no proven evidence in regard to the relationship between sulfites and headaches. When consumed in moderation (like most everything else), the health risk of sulfites is not of great concern.

As for organic wines.........the term organic wine simply means that no additional sulfites have been added to protect the wine. Meaning, the sooner you drink the bottle, the better. Remember, almost all wines naturally contain sulfites through fermentation. And those are some of the reasons, along with government regulation (that's for another day), that you see those two words "contains sulfites" on the back of your wine bottle.

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