Hi! I'm Heather from the Paso Robles Wine Club and today I bring you a theme that's dividing the wine world.
When it comes to wine, "sulfites" are free sulfur dioxide (SO2) compounds, frequently used for its antioxidant and antimicrobial properties. Sulfites are naturally formed during fermentation and are therefore present in all wines, although its usage is a widespread practice among winemakers, not only by direct addiction to the wine, but also as a cleaning agent for barrels and other winery facilities.
The consumption of sulfites is generally harmless, but it is known that 3 to 10% of adult asthmatics may be hypersensitive to them, with some experiencing potentially life-threatening reactions. For this reason, specific labeling is required if the presence of sulfites is detected – in the US and the EU, at concentrations of 10 ppm or more. Contrary to a common myth, it's also unlikely that sulfites are responsible for the so-called hangover, since there's no medical research data supporting it.
However, in high doses, they can produce unpleasant aromas. Moreover, for the sake of purity, but certainly not oblivious to the recent trends in organic food products, some winemakers are seeking to reduce the intervention and additives used in their wines to a bare minimum, ideally zero. Perhaps their biggest objection to the use of sulfites is that they don't only neutralize the harmful yeasts and bacteria that could yield spoiled wine, but also those that help to define the unique character of a wine's place of origin or even vintage: those that, so to speak, bring tridimensionality to the wine.
Still, regardless of the quality of the fruit used, how carefully it and its juice is handled, and irreprehensible hygiene in the wine cellar, will it be feasible to completely eliminate the use of added sulfites in the wine – at least in those born without a spectacular natural acidity?
Some producers do it, with mixed results: after some time in the bottle, some SO2-free wines show themselves brighter, more interesting than their sulfited counterparts, while others become prematurely oxidized or acquire other faults. In a nutshell: given the differences between modern and ancestral wine making processes, vintners are still learning how to make wine with no added sulfite – sort of a trial and error process, regardless of the efforts made.
That said, maybe the answer to the question whether to use sulfites or not is "yes", but always in adequate amounts. Most winemakers are already conscientious about the addition of sulfites, which they try to keep as low as possible, the bare minimum to not risk the wine's premature decline.