As featured in the Febraury/March issue of Longevity: There are many people who think that the sulphites and their supposed negative impact on health are God’s way of preventing them from enjoying wine too much. However, the role that sulphites play in our favourite beverage is very much misunderstood. Why are they there in the first place? Are they dangerous? If so, for whom? And if they are necessary, then what are the acceptable levels? This column will address these issues.
Sulphur (referred to as brimstone in the book of Genesis in the Bible) is one of the most important elements for mankind, in particular sulphur dioxide used as a preservative and disinfectant in the production and storage of food since antiquity.
So sulphur dioxide gets added to wine to fulfil anti-microbial and anti-oxidant function but did you know that sulphur occurs naturally in wine as a consequence of fermentation? That means there’s no such thing as a completely sulphur free wine. Local regulatory body the Wine and Spirits Board stipulates that wines should contain a maximum of 60 parts per million (ppm) free sulphur and 160 ppm total sulphur (300ppm in the case of noble late harvest and wine from naturally grown grapes). In order for a wine to be classified as a wine with no added sulphur, it should have zero free sulphur and less than 10 ppm total sulphur.
You will have noticed that all wines are labelled with the health warning “Contains sulphites” and many presume the worst, blaming these sulphites for all sorts of maladies including the “Red Wine Headache”. This is a very real but poorly understood phenomenon whereby sufferers get a severe headache shortly after consuming red wine (the headache that comes the next day is what’s commonly known as a hangover). Though no definitive conclusions have been reached, sulphites have largely been ruled out – many white wines contain more sulphites than red and yet do not cause headaches. It is thought that what triggers these headaches is far more likely to be amines like histamine and tyramine that occur in wine but also aged foods like cheese.
Where sulphites are most definitely a public health issue (and hence the need for labelling) is the case of asthmatic adults, where sulphite sensitivity may cause bronchial constriction when exposed to wine, although it seems that in the studies done to date sulphite concentrations have to be excessively high before there is any real danger.
If the health issues to do with sulphites are not that pressing , then why be concerned with sulphite levels at all? In sheer wine appreciation terms, the addition of sulphur dioxide is that its aroma can be quite unpleasant. Then there are the proponents of “natural” wine who argue that if wine is about presenting the character of the place, grapes and growing season responsible for it as faithfully as possible, then it is necessary to make as few interventions in the winemaking process as possible, which consequently prohibits the addition of sulphur dioxide. Call me unromantic but I’d prefer my wine to be age-worthy and for that, added sulphur remains pretty important.