"Contains Sulfites." You'll find these words on almost every wine bottle today, yet it is frequently misunderstood.
Sulfites are chemical compounds that occur naturally in wine to a varying degree. They function as wine preservatives and enhancers, and many winemakers purposefully add them at critical moments of winemaking to protect them against potential oxidation and quickly halt ongoing fermentation.
But does organic wine have sulfites? If so, are they something to watch out for? How do they impact wine? This post provides an overview of organic wine and sulfites.
What is Organic Wine?
Organic Wine is wine farmed with organically grown grapes. There is no universal standard for organic farming, although guidelines exist. The definition of organic wine largely depends on the country of origin.
Wine can be defined as "organic" when it's made with 100% organic grapes without using synthetic chemicals in vineyards. The vinification process must also occur with limited use of certified sulfites and other oenological organic products. All farming practices used in the production of organic grapes don't rely on any artificial chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, or pesticides. Winemakers cultivate vineyards in their habitat, with nature growing around their farming process, encouraging biodiversity.
Organic wine respects the environment and ecosystem while having the best interests of the consumer in mind.
U.S. Organic Certified Wine Requirements
The U.S., E.U., and other countries have different governing bodies with parameters to qualify wine as organic. Some rules may only apply to farming practices. At other times, they apply to how the grapes are grown and other winemaking techniques.
In the U.S., organic wine must meet some requirements to be organically certified. These include:
- All ingredients used in winemaking must be certified as organic by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA)
- Grapes must be grown organically. No synthetic pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides are allowed in the vineyard. Genetically modified seeds or organisms (GMOs) are also not permitted.
- Additional sulfites are not allowed at bottling
- All agricultural products used in winemaking must be certified organic.
- All non-agricultural products cannot exceed 5% of the finished product. The winery must not use any prohibited substances
What are Sulfites in Wine?
Sulfites (sulfur dioxide) are chemical compounds that occur naturally at low levels in wine. They contain sulfite ions and occur during wine fermentation. Many winemakers add additional sulfites during the wine fermentation stage to protect and preserve its character, color, and flavor.
Wine is fragile while it’s fermenting, and it’s easy for young wines to spoil. Without sulfites (either naturally occurring or added), most wine wouldn’t last much longer than six months. With sulfites, wine keeps far longer. Sulfites also prevent browning in wine by reacting with oxygen in the sealed bottle of wine.
Sulfur dioxide is both an antioxidant and antimicrobial. It impedes wine oxidation and prevents it from fermenting into vinegar. Virtually every wine in the world contains sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation, so even wines with no added sulfites (like many organic and biodynamic wines) still have sulfites in them, as well as the requisite “contains sulfites” label. The "Contains Sulfites" label designation is intended to protect consumers who may be allergic to sulfites. People with asthma are the most susceptible.
High Sulfite Levels in Wine
Different wines contain different sulfite levels. Legally, wines are allowed up to 350 parts per million (ppm) sulfites in the United States. However, current regulations by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require that all wines in the United States containing 10+ ppm of sulfites are designated "Contains Sulfites" on the label.
White wines generally contain more sulfites than red wines, which get their color from contact with grape skins when fermenting. Grape skins contain polyphenols, tannins, and other antioxidants that keep the wine from fermenting. As such, red wines typically don't require as many added sulfites as white wine to stay fresh.
Contrastingly, white wines don't have as much (if any) contact with grape skins during fermentation. Therefore, they contain fewer natural antioxidants, especially in early fermentation, making them more prone to spoilage. As such, winemakers add more sulfites to white wine to prevent them from going bad during fermentation.
Generally, sulfites are considered safe. If you have a reaction from drinking wine, it's possible that sulfites are the culprit. It is best to consult a medical professional to be sure. It is also possible that you are reacting because of other reasons, like high alcohol content, histamines, high residual sugar content, or a possible combination of unlabeled additives. After all, most wine does not have as much sulfites as these other foods: dried fruit, pickled food, shrimp, scallops, and mushrooms.
How Do Sulfites Impact Wine?
Using or avoiding sulfites at various stages of winemaking has several effects on the chemical compounds in wine. Sulfite compounds like anthocyanins and tannins are modified by different sulfite levels during the fermenting process. Notably, sulfites combine with oxygen and/or acetaldehyde to affect the mouthfeel and color of wine.
Sulfites also have other effects on wine and the winemaking process, including:
- Preserving the desired color
- Preventing the production and growth of unwanted microorganisms
- Promoting yeast growth for better fermentation
- Protecting against oxidation that may affect the taste and color of wine
- Improving the release of desired chemical compounds from grape seeds and skin
The above factors make sulfites top of the list of products used in winemaking. One of the biggest health risks to sulfites in wine is an allergic reaction. Around 1% of the U.S. population is sensitive to sulfites, of which 5% of that population has asthma. While most wine consumers can tolerate sulfite consumption, some may experience headaches, hives, stomach pain, and swelling.
Does Organic Wine Have Sulfites?
The answer is yes. Organic wine contains naturally occurring sulfites that form from natural fermentation. Therefore, even wines with no added sulfites will contain traces of the compound.
Sulfites may not pose a big health concern, but they play a significant role in wine quality. Organic wines have considerably low quantities of sulfite. This cutoff helps ensure wines are the purest expressions of nature.
We invite you to try our wine collection at Dry Farm Wines. Our wines are grown only with organic or biodynamic practices. They are sugar-free, additive-free, and lab-tested to ensure they are statistically sugar-free and have lower alcohol volume. They also are lab tested for sulfites, ensuring they contain less than 75 parts per million (far below the US limit of 350).
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