Sulphite free and low sulphite wines

Having a sulphite intolerance is trying at the best of times as sulphites are so widely used as food preservatives, but around Christmas time it is particularly frustrating. All those sulphite-laden dried fruits keep Christmas cakes, pud and mince pies off the menu, no sausges with the turkey and maybe most frustrating of all – no cider, no beer – and no wine!

Although the true prevalence of sulphite allergy/intolerance is really not known, it is now recognised to be a significant factor for many asthmatics. It is also very variable, some people being relatively mildly affected while others can suffer anaphylaxis, while its significance in many asthma attacks is really uncharted.

If you want to know more about sulphite allergy in general, there are several interesting articles elsewhere on the foodmatter site: nutritionist and sulphite allergy sufferer, Justine Bold’s article and suggestions as to how to live with a sulphite intolerance and Margaret Moss’s fascinating discussion of the chemistry of sulphites and sulphates. However, this article has to do, specifically, with sulphites in wine. Also, see Janice Joneja's article.

John Lang and his wife Jane run Good Wine on Line and, because Jane is sulphite sensitive, they have specialised in low sulphite wines. What follows below is taken from their website where they try to untangle the complexities of sulphite use in wine in layman’s terms.

What are sulphites and why are they used in wine?

Chemically speaking, ‘sulphites’ is a collective noun for compounds of sulphur. In wine the most notable are sulphur dioxide E220, sodium metabisulphite E223 and potassium metabisulphite E224.

Sulphites, usually in the form of sulphur dioxide (SO2), are added to wine for a variety of reasons, predominantly as a preservative and anti-oxidant. Used in moderation they can be very beneficial to wine, but used to excess they can cause dangerous and potentially fatal reactions in the small minority of people who are very sensitive to them.

Virtually all wines contain some sulphites, but there can be vast differences in amounts depending on the quality of the wine, and there are also different types of sulphite, with different effects and symptoms. Unfortunately the wine label is usually no help at all and doesn’t state the actual quantity.

‘Potentially Dangerous’ sulphites and ‘Safe’ sulphites

Sulphites, in tiny amounts are a natural bi-product of the fermentation process – but these are miniscule quantities of ’bound’ sulphites, and harmless to virtually everybody, even sulphite intolerant people.

Additional sulphur is usually added at different stages of the wine making process. The major purpose of this ‘free’ sulphur is to seek out and react with oxygen molecules in the wine before the oxygen can ‘oxidise’ the wine and ruin it. This free sulphur is very aggressive and does this very quickly.

Free sulphur also combines with other compounds in the wine such as sugars. Additionally it has anti-bacterial properties killing off unwanted bacteria and yeasts, and is also useful in controlling malolactic fermentation. Therefore it is very useful to the winemaker and continues to be widely used.

When this ‘free’ sulphur combines with another compound or molecule, it undergoes a chemical transformation and becomes ‘bound’ sulphur which is inert, and DOES NOT trigger an allergic reaction in sulphite intolerant people – logical really as it can only react with another molecule once!

However, winemakers like to leave sufficient free sulphur in their wine at the bottling stage to continue to hunt out free oxygen, sugars and bacteria over the coming months ensuring the wine remains in good condition. Therefore they calculate the exact quantity required to react with expected oxygen levels and still leave the desired amount of free sulphur roaming around to be on the safe side.

This free sulphur CAN and DOES cause allergic reactions in sensitive people. This free sulphur is very aggressive and, unable to find any remaining oxygen to react with in the wine, it finds it in your body when you drink it!

The body’s natural defense system combats these sulphites in a variety of ways, one of which is to release histamines and, as in most allergic reactions, it is the histamines that cause the allergic symptoms – not the sulphur.

Symptoms can vary dramatically from person to person, although the most common is restricted breathing and closing of the throat and lungs. Other symptoms include rashes, hot flushes, tightening of the skin, sickness, diarrhoea – and even in some cases the peeling of the skin from the inside of the mouth.

In some instances the breathing issue can be fatal, as we know only too well from our own experiences! Jane technically died in January 2010 while on holiday in Thailand, from eating tinned mushrooms on a pizza which contained E227. I revived her several times and we only just got her to hospital on time! In the USA in the 1970s about 30 people died from reactions to sulphites which had been sprayed onto a salad bar, which prompted the US Government to bring in legislation that all foods with more than 10 parts per million had to state ‘contains sulphites’ on the label.

Low/no sulphite wines

Low Sulphite Wine – is not technically a recognised legal term, but a general description of a wine with a low amount of free sulphur. A good well made wine, which is safe for Jane to drink, will generally have less than 35 parts per million of free sulphur at bottling. This will have reduced in the first few weeks by a further 10ppm as some of the free sulphur will have combined with oxygen and been converted to bound sulphur.

Sulphite Free Wine - technically there is no such thing, but this is a term sometimes used to mean: preservative Free Wine or No Added Preservative Wine - this is wine where no additional free sulphur has been added during the winemaking process. The wine cannot be correctly described as ‘sulphite free’ because there are tiny amounts of bound sulphites in there from the fermentation process, but to all intents and purposes it is free of any harmful sulphites and safe for sulphite intolerant people to drink.

Organic wine

Organic wine is not necessarily ‘sulphite free’ or even low in sulphites, as sulphites are an organic compound and permitted in organic wines. Some organic wines will be lower than normal wines in TOTAL SULPHUR but are likely to have very similar levels of FREE SULPHUR and can be just as potentially dangerous to sulphite intolerant people as any other wine.  Simply being labelled ‘organic’ is no guarantee that they’ll be safe for sulphite intolerant people. Always check out the free sulphur level first or simply opt for low sulphite wines instead.

Be very careful though, there are very few people in the wine trade who understand or know anything about sulphite intolerance, and there is a lot of misinformation out there. There are a lot of websites jumping on the 'organic' bandwagon who will tell you (wrongly) that organic wines are low in sulphur and safe for sulphite intolerant people to drink. THEY ARE NOT!

Why is sulphite free wine not more widely available?

Sulphite free wine will never be produced in commercial quantities as it is simply not commercially viable. Only a small percentage of people have an obvious reaction to sulphites so it’s perceived by the big retailers as a small problem for the minority.

It is very difficult to physically produce low sulphite or sulphite free wines as you need to implement a variety of additional measures (all expensive) to do the various jobs that sulphur does. There is also a high risk factor.

When making a wine with low (or no) free sulphur the slightest error can result in the whole batch being ruined, and the vineyard owner’s money goes down the drain. It only takes a brief power cut or a machine failure at bottling, a tiny leak or a seal not sitting properly and there isn’t enough sulphur to combat the oxygen in the air, and everything is ruined beyond repair.

A small number of dedicated perfectionists make these low sulphite or sulphite free wines with passion. By its nature it has to be on a small scale with hand picking and hand sorting, and is very labour intensive, highly skilled and fraught with risk. These wines simply cannot be produced to compete on price with the artificially low prices on our supermarket shelves.

If you want good quality, low preservative wines be prepared to pay upwards of £9 per bottle. The good news however is that at this price you're getting great quality wine, delicious and good for you!

Click here to see Good Wine on Line's low sulphite wines

First published in 2010

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