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Look at almost any wine bottle label and you’ll spot the phrase ‘contains sulfites’. This might sound like warning, alerting you about potentially harmful chemical constituents, but sulfites are actually a completely harmless, essential wine-making ingredient used since ancient times.

This might seem a little confusing. After all, isn’t wine a natural product made from nothing other than unadulterated grapes and natural grape juice? You have always happily believed that “wine is the product obtained exclusively from total or partial alcoholic fermentation of freshly crushed grape juice or grape must”! Now you look at a label and there it is, that curious little statement: ‘contains sulfites’. What’s going on? Wine with added chemicals? That can’t be good!

Don’t Worry: Sulfites Really Aren’t Bad!

Rest-assured, it’s actually perfectly standard practice to add tiny amounts of sulfur as a preservative during the wine-making process, and this ingredient must be disclosed on the label by the phrase ‘contains sulfites’. Sulfur is added to prevent the wine from premature deterioration and to preserve the fruity accents in the aroma. In the first place, sulfur prevents oxidation. It protects the wine from the damaging effects of oxygen, and secondly it inhibits the growth of undesirable microbes and yeasts, which would otherwise quickly turn the fine wine into unpalatable vinegar. The addition of a tiny amount of sulfur is not a recent development; it has been the practice in wine-making for centuries – even dating to, as far back as, the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

In modern times however, although sulfur is pretty much essential to the production of good wine, some wine lovers remain suspicious that it could, in some way, be detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Do not worry; there really is no need for concern. First of all, all reputable wineries only add sulfur with the utmost restraint – partly because, although sulfur confers unarguably positive benefits to the wine in small amounts, when used too liberally, it actually suppresses a wine’s bouquet and unpleasantly dominates the aroma. Also, there are limits in regard to acceptable sulfur levels. The sulfur concentration for a wine in the US is limited to 350 ppm (parts per million). In practice, the amounts contained are usually far below this upper limit. Since 1987, wines containing more than 10 ppm sulfites must be labeled.

Sulfur Has No Negative Impact On Our Health And Well-being

An ordinary, dry German Riesling contains about 80 ppm of sulfur. At most half is free, reactive sulfur. Except in the very rare case of someone suffering from a sulfur allergy, you can be confident that the sulfur used in making wine will have no detrimental impact on your health or well-being. The famous British wine author Hugh Johnson drew attention to this fact when he wrote that anyone who thought that the sulfur in wine gives them a headache should urgently go on a strict diet, because many everyday foods are treated with amounts of sulfur far exceeding those found in wine. The maximum permissible amount of 350 ppm sulfur in wine appears almost negligible when compared to other products: dried potato products (e.g. instant mash) can contain up to 400 ppm, unshelled nuts up to 500 ppm, and dried apricots up to as much as 3000 ppm!

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