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What Are Sulfites And Why Are They In My Wine?

Growing up in Oregon I would see the words “Contains Sulfites” on wine bottles and wonder, what in the world is a sulfite and why has it been added?

The technical explanation:  Sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion SO2.  The sulfite ion is the conjugate base of bisulfate.  Although the acid itself is elusive, its salts are widely used.  The term “sulfites” is an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide (SO2).  SO2 is a preservative that is used in winemaking and most food industries because of the antioxidant and antibacterial properties.

After doing a little research I discovered that sulfites (preservatives) are added either before the crush or after to prevent spoilage and oxidation (browning).  Sulfites protect the wine from not only oxidation, but also bacteria.  In other words it keeps your wine from going bad and turning brown.

My research sources also tell me that sulfites do occur naturally in all wines to some extent.   Red wines have tannin, which is a stabilizing agent and need less sulfur dioxide to protect the wine during winemaking and maturation.

The United States requires the labeling “contains sulfites” on wine when more than 10 parts-per-million have been added.   In the EU the maximum levels of SO2 that a wine can contain are 160 parts-per-million for red wine, 210 parts-per-million for white wine and 400 parts-per-million for sweet wines. 

There are all kinds of health articles about the consumption of sulfites.  Some people are very sensitive to sulfites and experience an allergic reaction.  Let me just say that if you are concerned about preservatives in your wine, there are now many “natural” or “organic” options that contain very little SO2.   

So as you pick out your next bottle of wine think about the words “Contains Sulfites and what that means to you - LD


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