“Sulfites (also spelled sulphites – ˈsəlˌfīt) are compounds that contain the sulfite anion SO32−. The sulfite ion is the conjugate base of bisulfite. Although its sulfurous acid is elusive, its salts are widely used.”
Are you still with me? The fact is, I could go on and on talking about the sulfite’s molecular structure, its atomically single and double-bonding composition and trigonal pyramidal shape, but I would lose you faster than a speeding bullet.
So instead of copying and pasting this gobbledygook from various online sources, I will simply explain in words we can all understand – where they’re from, what they do, why some winemakers use them as opposed to those who have decided to go organic, how they can affect some of us and how this can be prevented.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites are chemical compounds found in nature. It comes from sulfur which has the unique property of binding with oxygen molecules, resulting in the chemical formula known as SO2. So if sulfur is a natural product found in certain types of soil, we can safely assume that it also comes naturally in the food products we grow – like grapes. Those sulfites do nothing to help preserve the fruit itself or the wine. Those sulfites are known as “bound” sulfites as they have already molecularly bound to other components in the wine. Many compounds in wine will bind sulfur dioxide. This effectively does exactly what it sounds like: it “ties the hands” of sulfur so that it is unable to do its job! The good thing to know is that once all the binding sites are filled with sulfur, the remaining sulfur is floating around in the wine, free to do its job. And that takes us to the other type of sulfites known as “free”. Free sulfites are used to describe the unbound or “working” portion of sulfur in the wine. Those are actually “working” against microbes, but this active portion also depends on a the wine’s pH.
Geek alert! At a lower pH (more acidic),the free sulfur is in the SO2 form – while at a higher pH, it is in the form of bisulfite (H2SO3-), which I hear, is essentially ineffective in wine.
What do sulfites do?
Centuries ago, clever scientists have discovered that sulfur was a strong cleansing and antibacterial agent. Since then, it has been used in the food and beverage industry as an additive to stop bacteria and oxidation. Sulfites come in different forms. Sulfur dioxide is the one used by winemakers to arrest fermentation at a desired time, and may also be added to wine as preservatives to prevent spoilage and oxidation at several stages of the winemaking process. Sulfur addition has been and continues to be a huge polemic in the world of winemaking. Some people are widely against it, while others believe it’s the only way to go.
Personally, I don’t really mind as long as the resulting taste is good. I might have a preference for the more natural process because I’m an environmentalist nut! That said, the organic and biodynamic winemaking process is much tougher, and the rules are very strict.
Relatively speaking, the use of sulfites is a far better method than the one used thousands of years ago, when winemakers used various additives like tree resin (notably from Cyprus), gypsum, lime, marble dust, myrrh, and in some cases lead to help delay spoiling and avoid infections which cause them to become acid, malodorous and moldy. Without sulfites, grape juice would quickly turn to vinegar, and we don’t want that to happen.
So it is settled! We like sulfites. But not always…
Why are they harmful to some people?
Sulfites are widely used to extend the shelf life of products. Because it is often difficult to know whether a food contains sulfites, people may not realize they have a sensitivity to sulfites when they are having reactions to food or drinks. Sulfites are also known to destroy vitamin B1, an essential vitamin that metabolizes carbohydrates and alcohol. A little ironic, don’t you think?
There’s a certain percentage of wine drinkers that are allergic to sulfites. According to various online sources, sulfites are counted among the top nine food allergens. It may cause a range of reactions, including nausea, diarrhea, rash, swelling or difficulty breathing – none of which are particularly fun.
Meet Jean Ishihara. Just like the rest of us, Jean likes to sip on a glass of wine at the end of day. Unfortunately, Jean is VERY sensitive to sulfites. She is also VERY determined, and her determination helped her find a “solution” to her problem.
Winemakers are well aware of the effects of sulfites in the wine. Sometimes, they will reduce the amount of sulfites on a large scale using FDA-approved hydrogen peroxide. Yes, it’s true. Hydrogen peroxide will get rid of those pesky sulfites in your wine. I suppose you could do this on your own, but unless your last name is “Ishihara”, I highly recommend against it. Beside, they did all the work so you don’t have to.
After discussing the issue in 2012 with her entrepreneurial brother and her father, a former chemist, Jean Ishihara decided to concoct her own chemical solution. Using the already FDA-approved solution as a guide, the Ishiharas’ team created a complex formula for the consumers to administer. After multiple months of rigorous testing and complex calculations, they came up with the perfect formula. According to Jean, “the solution is powerful enough to neutralize the sulfites in an entire bottle of wine and flexible enough so users can add a few extra drops when refilling their glass.”
Based in Newport Beach, Jean’s company offers a solution that eliminates the unbound sulfites by up to 80% without affecting the taste of the wine. The reduction effect will vary based on sulfite quantities. For most wines, three drops in a standard 5-ounce serving, or 12 drops in a 750 ml bottle, will work. They tested (and tasted) their product with many different types of wines and guaranty its result. “I think it works for the regular person like me who can’t drink wine because of sulfites, health conscious people who are nervous about the effects of sulfites, and people who want less of a headache during a hangover,” Jean says.
Bottles are available on the Just The Wine website [justthewine.com] for $5.95 each. More information and details are available on the website.
So if you’re like Jean, a glass of wine could easily result in a very upset stomach, and that’s a terrible shame because we love our wine. But it doesn’t have to be that way, thanks to Just The Wine.
• Sulfur dioxide was used by the Romans in winemaking, when they discovered that burning sulfur candles inside empty wine vessels kept them fresh and free from vinegar smell.
• Organic wines are not necessarily sulfite-free, but generally have the lowest amount because no additional sulfites are added. In general, white wines contain more sulfites than red wines, and sweeter wines contain more sulfites than dryer ones.
• In the United States, wines bottled after mid-1987 must have a label stating that they contain sulfites if they contain more than 10 ppm (parts per million).
• Most wines have an average of 25-35 ppm.
• SO2 is mostly undetectable in wine, but at free SO2 concentrations over 50 ppm, SO2 becomes evident in the nose and taste of wine. According to Just The Wine, the notorious Trader Joe’s 2 Buck Chuck (Charles Shaw) Cabernet Sauvignon contains a whooping 36 ppm of sulfites. Their Pinot Grigio has 60 ppm!!! I just gave you another reason to stay away from this wine… You’re welcome.
• Some people blame sulfites for their headaches (aka hangovers) – others believe it is a persistent myth. I believe it’s just mediocre wine.
• Free sulfites are the ones that affect the sulfite sensitive person. In theory, free sulfites will dissipate after time… And THAT is another reason to age your wine and drink it at its absolute peak.