What About Sulfites?

It is unclear how long sulfur has been used in winemaking, but it has definitely been around for several hundred years. Oxidation is an ever present danger in white and rose wines, and bacteria remaining after fermentation can stay active unless killed by some cleansing agent. Most wineries, including organic ones, use sulfur dioxide to limit this spoilage. When added to water or wine, sulfur dioxide becomes sulfites.

5 to 10 percent of people are slightly allergic to this useful substance, and may suffer breathing problems, hives or other effects after drinking wine with too many sulfites. The FDA says only about 0.4% of the US population, or about a million people, are highly allergic to sulfites. These persons sense very low levels and suffer more acute symptoms.

One solution is to drink no wine if you’re sensitive, or to drink only wines with low levels of sulfites. To help wine drinkers make these choices, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) requires all wines that contain over 10 parts per million (ppm) sulfites to show a warning such as “Contains Sulfites.” Unfortunately, the law does not require the amount to be shown, so most consumers still aren’t able to choose a low sulfite wine. Certified organically grown and produced wines have sulfite levels far less than legal maximums.

Grapes create a few naturally occurring sulfites in fermentation. Wines made with no added sulfites usually have less than 10ppm and do not need a warning. A wine containing over 10ppm probably has added sulfites.

Why are there any added sulfites in organic wine? Wines made without them are more likely to deteriorate in a few years. European organic certification groups recognized this and developed rules allowing limited use of sulfur dioxide. This simple form of sulfite is considered natural; it is diluted mined sulfur. The amount of sulfites permitted in organic wine is well below the norm. US law allows up to 350ppm in wine. Organic standards limit total sulfites to under 100ppm, and most organic wines are even lower.

Organic winemakers, like all organic farmers, avoid use of chemicals on the land, the plants and the finished product. This method allows the plants to develop their natural strengths and benefit from the many nutrients present in balanced soil. They choose this type of farming to reduce their exposure to chemicals and because they see a difference in the health of their soil and plants. Synthetic additives and metabisulfite compounds are not permitted in organic winemaking. Many chemicals more dangerous than sulfur are used in conventional vineyards and are not required to be shown on labels. An organic winemaker adds few sulfites to his wine not only because his standards dictate this, but because his grapes and wine require less external support to be tasty and long lived.

US law requires wine with Total Sulfites over 10 parts per million (ppm) to have warning CONTAINS SULFITES. US maximum sulfite limit is 350 ppm. Most wines average 80-120 ppm, with some up to 350 ppm. US organic standards allow 100 ppm in red, white and sparkling. French organic standards allow 90 ppm in red, 100 ppm in white and sparkling wines.

Please contact us if you would like further information on sulfites or its levels in wines sold by Chartrand Imports, at 800-473-7307.