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Kim Tyrer
23 March 2013 | Stories | Kim Tyrer

Sulfer in Wine

Australia has a clean and green public profile in the global wine industry. Our Government has one of the highest regulations and combine that with our clean soils and environment I personally would never be really worried about anything grown in Australia. That is why I find it odd when people think it is better/ healthy to drink overseas wines verse Australia wines.

Here are a few stories...
I had a friend who worked in South America making wine. He said the amount of times they sprayed the vineyard it should have been glowing. Why? It's a humid place and disease pressure is high. And goodness knows if South American has the same food standards as we do in Australia? I am thinking not?
What about those Austrian's. They got caught putting anti-freeze in wine in 1985.It was scandalise and destroy thousands of years of history of making wine. Plus it affected the Australian wine industry as the Japanese got confused with Austrians and Australians. The Australia wines sales drop dramatic around that time.
And here a good one- apparently the Italians killed 20 people with methnol poisoning in their wine. A good year for international wine 1985!

Sulphur in wine?
Did you know they have been adding sulphur to wine since 1847? Neither did I but how interesting!
Apparently a Prussian royal decree officially permitted the use of the wine additive sulphur dioxide (or SO2) for the first time. Not that it hadn't been used before then. To help preserve their wines during transport, Dutch and English wine traders regularly burnt sulphur candles inside barrels before filling them. It was a trick that they learned from the Romans who conducted the same practice over millennia before. There are many traditions within the wine industry which are still used today. We have used sulphur rings in the early days which you burn in barrels ( similar to candles) here at Galafrey but the down fall is you can't accurately measure it. And in the Australia Wine Industry EVERYTHING IS MEASURED!

"Contains sulphides" is the common term (and legal term) on wine labels that have SO2 sulphur dioxide in them. Sulphur dioxide is used to preserve the wine against oxidation. They also can be commonly known as preservative 220 or 224. In fact if you look at our old labels that's what is listed, the preservative numbers, but now all we have to do is put contains sulphides.

Sulphites are some of the oldest and most widespread preservatives in our food supply. They were used in Greek and Roman times in wine, but it was only in the 1880s that their use in as preservatives in meats was pioneered by Australian and South American beef producers wanting to ship their products to England. The use of sulphites in fruit and vegetables became common with the growth of the processed food industry in the twentieth century.
A 1994 survey by Australian food regulators found sulphites in more than half the foods tested including such staples as bread and margarine, with sulphites higher in white bread than wholemeal.

Consumption of sulphites is generally harmless, unless you suffer from severe asthma or do not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulphites in your body. The amount of sulphites that a wine can contain is highly regulated in Australia. Any wine containing more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulphur dioxide must affix to the label 'contains sulphites'.

Meanwhile people are concerned about sulphides. What are they? What do they do? Are they harmful? Do they cause headaches? Or other related illness?
So let's go through a few.

Does red wine contain more sulphides than white wine?
No. Generally you use less sulphur in reds because you don't need to. White wines because of the beautiful clear colour generally require more sulphur. Red wines contain tannin, which is a stabilizing agent. Additionally, almost all red wines go through malolactic fermentation. Therefore, less sulphur dioxide is needed to protect the wine during winemaking and maturation. Whereas white wine is more fragile, especially in terms of colour and aromas, both as a winemaker you want to protect. How do you protect wine- sulphur.
Sulphur dioxide plays two important roles. Firstly, it is an anti-microbial agent, and as such is used to help curtail the growth of undesirable fault producing yeasts and bacteria. Secondly, it acts as an antioxidant, safeguarding the wine's fruit integrity and protecting it against browning.
The fact that red wines typically contain less sulphite may seem surprising to people who blame sulphites for their red wine headaches!
Red wine headaches tend to be form high alcohols. As a season drinker even I find those 16% alcohol reds affect me more than those 14% ones!!

So if it's so good why not add buckets of it?
Well I guess it a case of management. You want to manage the winemaking process adding the least you can while keeping the best flavours of the fruit. Most winemakers, especially artisan's winemakers want to do the least than can by harnessing the quality of fruit. Plus winemaking essentially is a science and sulphur can bind to other elements like hydrogen and form H2S which smells like rotten eggs. Yuk and a wine fault. One of the reasons H2S is usually formed in fermentation when the yeast is struggling and lacks nutrients. But there is no sulphur added at fermentation you say? Yep- but fermentation will produce a small amount of sulphur naturally. I know!..... It's a complicated topic.
Another sulphur fault is if too much sulphur in white wine it will smell like a freshly struck match stick and have a metallic bitter taste. Not nice.

Is Sulphur greater in cork wine or screw cap?
Generally speaking sulphur is greater in screw cap wine due to the 30mm ullaged gap compared with the cork ullaged gap of 10mm. Don't worry both wines are still 750ml and we are not ripping you off 20mm.
But Cask wine has more sulphur than bottle wine, due to it packaging. And generally speaking warmer climate wines might have more sulphur than cool climate wines due to their pH levels. I's complicated.

How do I pick a wine that has minimal sulphur?
I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you have an allergy to sulphur but on what I have said so far I would choose a less commercial, aged red from a cool climate area. Sound familiar!! 
If I was sensitive to sulphur I would avoid any wines that was bottled recently especially new whites. Give them 3 months to settle. It is often these wines that have a high sulphur smell to them which may cause anyone to wheeze- including me!
Meanwhile sweet wines especially stickys are high in sulphur.
The Sulphur levels of all wines naturally declines over time.
What about French and Italian wine I hear they have less sulphur added?
The theory is that French and Italian wines have a low acid and therefore don't require as much sulphur additions.

What about people who are allergic to sulphur?
I was going to try an answer this one but my research has lead me to many answers and suggest you follow your doctor's advice on that one! I'd imagine if you are allergic to sulphur then you cannot drink any wine, not even organic or natural wine. Organic and natural wine still contains sulphur just smaller amounts.

Sulphites in wine cause headaches?
Medical research is not definitive on the relationship between sulphites and headaches. There are many other compounds in wine such as histamines and tannins that are more likely connected to the headache effect (not to mention alcohol!).
Another surprising fact is that wine contains about ten times less sulphite than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 ppm. So if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have any adverse reaction you are probably not allergic to sulphites. I was at a festival once and the person swore black and blue they couldn't drink wine because of the sulphur. Meanwhile they polished of a packet of Twisties in front of me? Yeah right- no sulphur in twisties!!
Apart from the potential allergic reaction, many people are against sulphites, because they feel they are an unnatural addition when making wine. While that view is valid, it is important to remember that sulphites are also a natural by-product of the yeast metabolism during fermentation. So even if you do not add any additional SO2, your wine will still contain sulphites.
A better understanding of how sulphur dioxide breaks down and binds during winemaking, better winery hygiene, and more careful viticultural practices to ensure healthy grapes (i.e no rot) have all greatly helped to reduce the need for SO2 additions during winemaking. Today, there are many winemakers who refrain from adding any SO2 until after the fermentation is complete.
So how come I get headaches with some wines and not others?
Put your science cap on again! The headache experienced after consuming alcohol is generally related to your BAC (Blood alcohol content). Blood alcohol content is usually expressed as a percentage of alcohol (generally in the sense of ethanol) in the blood. For instance, a BAC of 0.10 means that 0.10% (one tenth of one precent) of a person's blood, by volume is alcohol.
The more wine you consume, the higher will be your BAC, the more the alcohol and acetaldehyde will irritate the tissues of your brain, and the more severe will be your headache.
Your BAC's related to the rate of alcohol consumption and it is particularly true when it get rapidly absorbed into the blood from the small intestine. The consumption of food, intake of medication, and even other non-alcoholic fluids, with wine slows down the amount of alcohol that gets into your blood stream and reduces the amount of work your liver has to do to break the alcohol down.
Guess if one uses the rules of science one must drink different bottles of wine under the same circumstances with in the same time frame to prove the hypnosis true?? Bit hard really??

Why sulphites are necessary?
There are really very few wines that are made without some use of SO2. This is because wine is perishable, prone to oxidation and the development of aldehyde off-odors. SO2, particularly for white wines, is important for freshness
So why doesn't everybody make preservative free wine?
I imagine this will become more and more relevant. Even here at Galafrey we are playing with how far we can push minimal winemaking ( less to no additions of anything) but the technology not really there yet and there is a lot of risk of the wine spoiling.

And at the end of the day what does it all mean?
Read the label! What you choose to drink is your choice. That's why region, size of winery, alc%, pH, acid all play a big part in what you are drinking......and you thought the wine industry was putting all that stuff on to confused you?


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