EXPLANATION FOR SULPHITES IN WINE
Sulphite free and low sulphite wines
Having a sulphite intolerance is trying at the best of times as sulphites are so widely used as food preservatives, however, around Christmas time it is particularly frustrating. All those sulphite-laden dried fruits keep Christmas cakes and mince pies off the menu, no sausages with the turkey and maybe most frustrating of all – no cider, no beer – and no wine!
Although the true cause of sulphite allergy/intolerance is not really known, it is now recognised to be a significant factor for many asthmatics. It is also very variable, some people being relatively mildly affected with rushes or headaches, while others can suffer anaphylaxis. Whilst the part it plays in many asthma attacks is also really uncharted.
What are sulphites and why are they used in wine?
Chemically speaking, ‘sulphites’ is a collective noun for compounds of sulphur. In wine the most notable are sulphur dioxide E220, sodium metabisulphite E223 and potassium metabisulphite E224.
Sulphites, usually in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO2), are added to wine for a variety of reasons, predominantly as a preservative and anti-oxidant. Used in moderation they can be very beneficial to wine, but used to excess they can cause dangerous and potentially fatal reactions in the small minority of people who are very sensitive to them.
Virtually all wines contain some sulphites, but there can be vast differences in amounts depending on the quality of the wine, and there are also different types of sulphite, with different effects and symptoms. Unfortunately, the wine label is usually no help at all and doesn’t state the actual quantity.
‘Potentially Dangerous’ sulphites and ‘Safe’ sulphites
Sulphites, in tiny amounts are a natural bi-product of the fermentation process – but these are miniscule quantities of ’bound’ sulphites, and harmless to virtually everybody, even sulphite intolerant people.
Additional sulphur is usually added at different stages of the wine making process. The major purpose of this ‘free’ sulphur is to seek out and react with oxygen molecules in the wine before the oxygen can ‘oxidise’ the wine and ruin it. This free sulphur is very aggressive and does this very quickly.
Free sulphur also combines with other compounds in the wine such as sugars. Additionally, it has anti-bacterial properties killing off unwanted bacteria and yeasts, and is also useful in controlling malolactic fermentation. Therefore, it is very useful to the winemaker and continues to be widely used.
Winemakers who produce large volumes of wine at each vintage, like to leave an average of 50 parts per million of free sulphur in their wine at the bottling stage to continue to hunt out free oxygen, sugars and bacteria over the coming months ensuring the wine remains in good condition. In most cases there is excessive free sulphur that remains in the wine at the time of sale.
This free sulphur CAN and DOES cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. This free sulphur is very aggressive and, unable to find any remaining oxygen to react with in the wine, it finds it in your body when you drink it!
The body’s natural defence system combats these sulphites in a variety of ways, one of which is to release histamines and, as in most allergic reactions, it is the histamines that cause the allergic symptoms – not the sulphur.
Symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person, although the most common is headaches, restricted breathing and closing of the throat and lungs. Other symptoms include rashes, hot flushes, tightening of the skin, sickness, diarrhoea – and even in some cases the peeling of the skin from the inside of the mouth.
Low/no sulphite wines
Low Sulphite Wine – is not technically a recognised legal term, but a general description of a wine with a low amount of free sulphur. A good, well made wine, which is safe for an allergic person to drink, will generally have less than 35 parts per million of free sulphur at bottling. This will have reduced in the first few weeks to aprox 25 ppm, as some of the free sulphur will have combined with oxygen and been converted to bound sulphur.
Los Enoloz Wines have less than 10 parts per million of free sulphur at the bottling stage.
Sulphite Free Wine - technically there is no such thing, but this is a term sometimes used to mean: preservative Free Wine or No Added Preservative Wine - this is wine where no additional free sulphur has been added during the winemaking process. The wine cannot be correctly described as ‘sulphite free’ because there are tiny amounts of bound sulphites that come naturally from the grapes and form there from the fermentation process, but to all intents and purposes it is free of any harmful sulphites and safe for sulphite intolerant people to drink.
Organic wine is not necessarily ‘sulphite free’ or even low in sulphites, as sulphites are an organic compound and permitted in organic wines. Some organic wines will be lower than normal wines in TOTAL SULPHUR but are likely to have very similar levels of FREE SULPHUR and can be just as potentially dangerous to sulphite intolerant people as any other wine. Simply being labelled ‘organic’ is no guarantee that they’ll be safe for sulphite intolerant people. Always check out the free sulphur level first or simply opt for low sulphite wines instead.
Be very careful though, there are very few people in the wine trade who understand or know anything about sulphite intolerance, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. There are a lot of websites jumping on the 'organic' bandwagon who will tell you (wrongly) that organic wines are low in sulphur and safe for sulphite intolerant people to drink. THEY ARE NOT!
Why is sulphite free wine not more widely available?
Sulphite free wine will never be produced in commercial quantities as it is simply not commercially viable. Only a small percentage of people have an obvious reaction to sulphites, so it’s perceived by the big retailers as a small problem for the minority.
It is very difficult to physically produce low sulphite or sulphite free wines as you need to implement a variety of additional measures (all expensive) to do the various jobs that sulphur does. There is also a “high risk” factor.
When making a wine with low (or no) free sulphur the slightest error can result in the whole batch being ruined, and the vineyard owner’s money and all the work for that vintage being destroyed.
Only a small number of winemakers make these low sulphite or sulphite free wines. By its nature, it must be on a small scale with hand picking and hand sorting, and is very labour intensive, highly skilled and fraught with risk. These wines simply cannot be produced to compete on price with the major brands on our supermarket shelves.
If you want good quality, low preservative wines be prepared to pay upwards of $20 per bottle. The good news however is that at this price you're getting great quality wine, with minimal sulphites that when drunk in moderation is healthy for you too.
LOS ENOLOZ WINES CONTAINS LESS THAN 10 PPM OF FREE SULPHITES, labelling legislation has approved not to mention sulphites in wines on this low range, we choose to write Contains Minimum Sulphites as we think even if it is a tiny natural quantity, everyone prone to having an allergic reaction should know.
To find out more about Los Enoloz wines please visit www.bestofspain.com.au/cellar