Weekly wine defined: Sulfites

Any wine coming from a winery in the United States after 1987 is required to state somewhere on its label that the wine you’re about to drink contains sulfites if it has more than 10 parts per million. If it has less than that, wineries can claim the wine sulfite free, although that’s not technically the truth.

A similar law went into effect in the European Union for wines bottled after 2005.

So what exactly are sulfites? And why are they used in wine?

First, one tid-bit not everyone realizes about sulfites — they occur naturally in grapes. So even if a wine says it is sulfite free, because the compound is in all grapes, the statement isn’t 100 percent accurate.

But, more often than not winemakers add sulfites to wine. This is done sometimes to stop the fermentation process, but it is also done to act as a preservative, which keeps bacteria and oxygen at bay, and allows wine to age.

If sulfites are not added to wine, it won’t last long — and if you do come across a “sulfite free” wine and you don’t drink it immediately, you may find yourself drinking vinegar when you finally do pop the cork.

The ultimate job of sulfites is to kill bacteria and to allow a wine to age without oxidation affecting its development.

White wines will have more sulfites added than red, because red wines have the advantage of tannic acids that help fight bacteria and ultimately preserve the wine like sulfites do.

Sulfites sometimes get a bad rap because people assume it’s the sulfites that cause an allergic reaction. One way to test if you’re allergic to sulfites is to try dried apricots — which are treated with sulfites for the one of the same reasons as wine: preservation.

According to one article, 2 ounces of dried apricots contain ten-times the amount of sulfites found in one glass of wine. If you react to the dried apricots, then you know you’re likely allergic to the sulfites. If they result in no reaction, you may be reacting the histamines in the wine and not the sulfites.