If you have read the back label of a bottle of wine you would have noticed that just about all of them carry the warning “contains sulphites.” With consumers becoming more and more health conscious over the last couple of years, certain ingredients in the food industry have come under serious scrutiny. In the wine industry, it is the presence of sulphites that has become an increasingly contentious issue.
What are sulphites? The term “sulphites” is a comprehensive term for sulphur dioxide (SO2) in all of its free and bound forms. It can make its way into wine in two ways, as a by-product of yeast metabolism during the fermentation process, or by being administered by the winemaker. A naturally occurring by-product of fermentation, no wine will, without zero intervention, contain zero sulphites. The handful of zero sulphite wines on the market have been altered chemically post-fermentation. In addition to the naturally occurring sulphites in wine, sulphites may be administered to wine in small amounts during different stages of the winemaking process. It is used by winemakers everywhere for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties.
Sulphites have been blamed for everything from headaches to blocked sinuses, and even that diabolical hangover. This has led to consumers avoiding it like the plague. The United States Food and Drug Administration reports that less than 1% of the US population actually suffers from a sulphite intolerance. While some people correctly avoid the controversial ingredient, the amount of people who legitimately suffer from the negative effects of sulphites are in the minority.
Busting Myths about Wine’s Sulphites, Alcohol aside, there are many other naturally occurring compounds in wine which you are likely to be more sensitive to. These include tannins and biogenic amines (mainly histamine and tyramine). Tannins are compounds that exist in the skins, stems and seeds of grapes. They are the main contributors to your wine’s texture and complexity, and since red wines are fermented on their skins and seeds, and sometimes even stems, they contain far higher concentrations.
Biogenic amines are small organic compounds that can be formed during fermentation or maturation. Red wines, again, contain far higher concentrations of biogenic amines, due to the fact that white wines hardly ever go through the process of malolactic fermentation, and consumers generally do not store white wines for as long. By using starter cultures (of yeast and bacteria) that have been selected for their ability to not produce these biogenic amines, winemakers can limit the concentration of these compounds in their wine. This is, however, a tricky one, as starter cultures are expensive. They are also not used in the production of most of your “natural wines” which the general public believe to be way better for your health. Another tool in the winemaker’s arsenal that can greatly reduce these concentrations is – surprise, surprise – good old sulphur dioxide, as high levels of biogenic amines correlate with other wine spoilage components that sulphites prevent, by acting as a preservative.
Just some food for thought as you open that bottle of vino this evening.
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