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Who Put Sulfites in My Wine?

Contains sulfites. We’ve all seen it before glaring at us from the back of a wine label.
Some might even look for wines without the ominous warning. Most of us, however,
have no clue what sulfites are or what they’re doing in wine in the first place. This
article will give a quick overview on sulfites, their role in wine production, and whether
consumers should try to avoid them.

Sulfites are chemical compounds that contain the sulfite ion (SO­32­ for those science
buffs among us). They occur naturally in wine in low levels as byproducts of the
complex fermentation reactions that transform grape juice into wine. Because of this, all
wines essentially contain sulfites.

Most of the sulfites in wine, however, are added. As wine interacts with air it naturally
oxidizes, often causing unwanted aging, discoloration, and even spoilage. To avoid
these problems, winemakers almost always introduce additional sulfites—usually sulfur
dioxide—to wine to prevent such oxidation, especially in white wines that lack many of
the natural preservatives that red wines gain from their contact with grape skins. Sulfites
in wine are practically undetectable outside the laboratory with the exception of young
whites at the beginning of the winemaking process, in which the sulfur odor disappears
long before the wine would be released. Sulfites also provide an additional benefit by
protecting the wine from unwanted bacteria. Because of all of these benefits of sulfites,
sulfite­added wines can age for years while low sulfite wines usually have a shelf life of
only a few months.

In America, law requires wines with sulfite levels over 10 ppm (parts per million) to
carry warning labels (lower than the sulfite levels of many warning­free foods such as
dried apricots). European and Southern Hemisphere wines, on the other hand, are subject
to different sets of laws and will often not sport sulfite warnings on their labels despite
having similar or even higher sulfite levels.

But why all the hoopla in the first place? While most people can consume low levels
of sulfites like those in sulfite­added wines, some people, estimated by the FDA at
around .4% of the population, have allergic or asthmatic reactions to the consumption
of sulfites even in relatively low levels. Even among those with asthma, according to
research done by allergist and clinical immunologist Dr. Vincent Marinkovich, only
about one in twenty have a reaction and that low­level sulfites like those found in sulfite­
added wine are safe for 99.75% of the population.

While sulfites can cause headaches, hives, or cramps in hypersensitive people, medical
research, suggests that another compound in red wines and not sulfites might be the
cause of symptoms among a very small segment of the population. Before attributing
headaches to sulfites, someone who suspects to have a sulfite allergy might want to see if
a handful of dried apricots triggers the same reaction.

Organic wines may offer an alternative for hypersensitive individuals. According to
the Organic Wine Company, a company that imports organic French wines, states that
organic wines contain sulfites at levels around 40ppm, about half of the non­organic
average of about 80 ppm. A number of wineries produce kosher organic wine, including
the Golan Heights Winery produces an organic Chardonnay and Israel’s Bashan Winery
exclusively produces organic kosher wines, available in Israel.