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Sulfites or not

What do we think about adding sulfites versus NSA wines? (Forgive me if this is an old conversation, but there’s an interesting article in Decanter on the topic.)

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Sulphites have been used in winemaking for centuries. Amounts in a bottle of wine are limited and most wine have much fewer than allowed.

What do I think? I’d rather have a wine stabilised with SO2, and having tried them, actively avoid wines labelled ‘no-added SO2’.

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Sulfites are a safety net that help prevent bacterial spoilage and oxidation. As they are toxic their use is regulated by different regulatory bodies for different levels in different countries…both organic and biodynamic certifiers allow them (but USA is very strict).
I have no problem with added sulfites within regulatory rules. They have been used for about 300 years.
The issue is that many find it hard to recocile a label that says organic or biodynamic and also says “contains sulfites.”
The amounts used are tiny sometimes 30mgms/ltr. But it is the mere presence that causes an issue. Even some natural wine makers use them although only at bottling.
So personally i have no issue. But others will take a different view.

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You know what contains sulphites?

Grapes.

Grapes contain sulphites. Grapes contain enough sulphites that wine regardless of whether it’s had any extra added needs to be labelled that it contains sulphites. Despite being a beardy hipster **** I have zero issue with extra sulphites being added to stabilise wine. It’s become a bit of a badge/marketing gimmick for a group of wine makers to sell a selection of wines with specific style too. If I want the flavours associated with “no added sulphur” wines, I’d usually rather have cider anyway.

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So true; there’s no such thing as a sulphite free wine as the fermentation process produces it.

What I find strange is the hoo-haa about sulphite in wine when there’s much more added to preserved fruits, and they naturally occur in all sorts of things including eggs and bottled mineral water.

What makes me laugh is people who blame headaches after they drink wine on sulphites and not on alcohol :slight_smile:

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For more on all additives, see today’s Jancis Robinson in the FT; free version on line:

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After reading this, I went to the thread ‘Foodbox directory’ where @Aaronb was pointing to Elite Bistros

So I looked at their menu and was interested to see that they listed sulphite as an allergen in
3 out of of 4 starters
4 out of 6 mains
2 out of 3 side dishes
1 out of 1 sweets

EBAH_Menu_2020_10-12-v10_LOWRES.pdf (elitebistros.com)

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Thanks for the share @SPmember,

Two clauses to make you think:

I too would defend the wine industry against claims that it is dirty but I also believe that much of what goes on is, at best, grubby.
(Quote from Richard Bampfield)
There is potentially an awful load of much that can be added to wine for all sorts of reasons that the producers would really prefer not to advertise. However, I don’t believe sulphites even register on the scale of bad stuff

I would however point out that by far the most potentially harmful ingredient in wine – all wine, whether natural, ‘clean’, organic or whatever – is alcohol
Quite. Addictive, carcinogenic and calorie-laden to name a few bad points. Think we need to keep things in perspective.

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No they don’t - not in any significant quantity anyway.

They contain other sulphur compounds, and the sulphur in them forms sulphites during the fermentation. In the context of wine, this might be a pedantic point, but if you are really sulphite-intolerant, it is an important distinction.

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It is often stated and repeated, usually by people justifying the use of sulphites, that they have been added to wine for hundreds of years, going back to Roman times.

My immediate comment would be that just because something has been done traditionally is not in itself a reason for continuing to do so. We used to do lots of things in the making of wines that are are no longer common practice - often with very good reason.

Also I would question the history. I have been trying to research (through Google and my personal very limited wine library) the history of sulphiting wines, and have found very little detail and reference to primary sources, or to any other serious historical studies.

It is well-established it seems, that Romans sometimes burned sulphur in empty casks to sanitise them. As they of course know nothing about micoorganisms, presumably they realised it stopped the casks going mouldy? But it is not clear that the sulphur actually got into the wine.

Also I found later references (sorry, can’t remember when/where, but I think it was 17th century or thereabouts) to people discovering that if a sulphur candle was burned in a cask before filling it with wine, then the wine lasted longer. This could have been due to some SO2 getting into the wine. Or it could just be that the cleaner casks had less bacteria and fungus, so were less likely to make the wine faulty. Even then I fould no evidence that it was standard practice.

Then the recorded story I have managed to find moves on to the mid and late 20th century, when we started bubbling S02 through wine and adding sodium and potassium metabisulphites. (I found little evidence for those dates either, but inferred it from the development of chemical industries, and documented use of SO2 by the Germany to make cheap sweet wines. It’s not something wine producers like talking about in their histories.) That seems to me to be to be a massive jump, from purifying casks to the deliberate (egregious in some cases) use of sulphites in the wine itself.

On the subject of the history, I am completely open-minded, and would be very happy if someone could fill in gaps, or add detail, to my acount, but in the meantime my feeling is that sulphiting wine is a 20th century innovation.

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Steve, the Roman soldier, administrator and wine critic Pliny the Elder makes reference to Sulphur in winemaking in his book “The Natural History” Chap. 25 when he talks about Pitch and Resin. But he was in fact quoting his contemporary Cato. As you rightly say it is not entirely clear whether the sulphur got into the wine.
The only other reference I can find to the later period is in the OCW 4th edition pages 250 and 708 in which references are made to the Dutch introducing sulphur burning candles to the French as part of the Bordeaux export trade. There is also mention of a late 15th century German decree referring to sulphur being burnt in wooden barrels before they were filled.

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Thank you for those details, which I failed to remember.

Sadly though, the OWC is rather vague on how we progressed from sterilising barrels to adding sulphites directly to wine. A couple of sentences on that would have been most interesting

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