Seeing the words "Contains Sulfites" on a bottle of wine often causes concern. Truth be told, most wines contain sulfites because S02 (sulfur dioxide) is a naturally occurring by-product of fermentation. However, due to this concern many winemakers do not add sulfites until fermentation is complete and use it as a method to kill any remaining yeast cells.
Sulfur dioxide is that “cooked egg” scent you may experience upon opening a bottle of wine. The release of sulfur dioxide is enhanced when wine is opened at a warmer temperature so the simple solution is to chill the wine or decant it.
Sulfites are used in many foods as a preservative. Interestingly, processed foods contain far more sulfites than wine. The average sulfite content of red wine is 50ppm (parts per million) while commercially processed dried fruits can contain over 1000ppm!
Wineries have used sulfur for ages. Roman winemakers burned candles made of sulfur in the empty wine containers. This kept wines from turning to vinegar.
When vintners began using wood barrels, they were cleaned with sulfur for the same effect. In the early 1900s sulfur was used in the winemaking process when it was discovered that sulfur retarded the growth of bacteria and unwanted yeast. Another benefit of sulfur in wines is its propensity to extract color pigments from the juice, leading to richer colors in finished wine.
Many people blame sulfites for “red wine headache” when in reality most red wines contain less sulfites than white wines do. Wines with lower acidity require the addition of more sulfur, as do wines with a higher sugar content. The latter is to prevent secondary fermentation which occurs naturally in wines with a higher residual sugar content unless stopped by the addition of SO2.
Conversely, most red wines go through malolactic fermentation - the secondary fermentation that converts sour lactic acid in wine to mellower malic acid resulting in a smooth, rich mouth feel.
Tannins, more commonly found in red wine, act as a stabilizing agent and allow winemakers to add less SO2 to their red wines. While tannins are a contributing factor to the red wine headache, many red wine lovers value the depth and flavor tannins add to a fine red wine.
There are many factors responsible for that red wine headache, not the least being the higher alcohol content of red wines! California red wines tend to be 13-17% alcohol while whites are normally in the 10-12% range.
So there you have it, the misunderstood Sulfite. And since we've debunked that old myth of red wine headaches, time to peruse your Craveyon wine subscription choices and consider adding our Petite Sirah or the delightfully mellow Cabernet Sauvignon.