21 Mar Let’s Talk About Sulfites
Let’s talk about sulfites.
“Sulfites give me headaches”
“I stopped drinking red wine because of the sulfites.”
“I prefer European wines because they don’t contain sulfites.”
We’ve heard all of these in the tasting room just in the last month.
Let’s get a couple of things straight…
Some sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation. Yeast eats sugar, emits CO2 and alcohol plus a tiny amount of sulfur dioxide (SO2). So, all wines will have a few parts per million (ppm). Also, technically grapes themselves contain natural sulfur but rarely does that form of sulfur cause allergy and sensitivity when eating, say, a handful of table grapes.
Then there are the added sulfites which are preservatives, allowing bottles to have a longer shelf life and maintain flavor. They are likely in all of the processed food you have in your cupboard and most condiments. For example, dried fruits have up to 1,800 ppm, hash browned potatoes have 347 ppm, and lemon juice has 278 ppm.4
So, why not just drink natural wines? Then there are no sulfites, right?
No. First, there is little agreement about what constitutes “natural wine”, (but let’s not go down that rabbit hole.) Second, even organic wines allow up to 100 ppm of sulfites per bottle, though generally, they range between 50-75 ppm2.
“Joseph Jewell wines contain between 50-75 ppm of total SO2”, said Adrian Manspeaker, Owner, and Winemaker.
Don’t judge the wine by its label – well, sort of.
In a rare quiet moment with Adrian Manspeaker, our winemaker/owner, we spoke about this. “Our Vermentino and Rosé may contain around 20 ppm of sulfites vs. some which may contain up to 60 ppm1.” So, where can you find this on the label? Well, an ingredient list would be nice. But, they are not required so producers are not forth-coming to list what they consider to be proprietary details (although consumers have been asking for more details in recent years.)
So, why not just stick to European wines since they don’t say, “contains sulfites”? Well, that’s not the whole truth. American labeling laws require the term, “contains sulfites”, for as little as 10 ppm while European wines simply don’t require this. There’s no real reason to conclude that wines here or there have any less or more sulfites than the other. (However, it is true that the maximum sulfite allowance in America for reds, for example, is 250 ppm compared to 160 pm in Europe2. But, remember, these are the maximum allowed.)
Letting a wine age is a benefit in terms of sulfites. “After, say, two years in bottle, that sulfite content will reduce and break down”1, Adrian said.
We spent a Sunday researching this for our own benefit and we concluded that sulfites aren’t as necessary, if:
- Grapes are healthy in the vineyard
- The winery is sanitary
- The winemaker has a good understanding of how sulfites break down, combine and release over time
So, that’s where small-lot production, locally-owned winemakers who are closer to the vineyards simply require using fewer sulfites.
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1 Adrian Manspeaker, Winemaker/Owner at Joseph Jewell Wines, Forestville, CA