Sulfites are a natural, organic preservative that humans have been using in wine and other foods for several thousand years. The only difference between France and the U.S. is that the U.S. requires a warning label, and warning labels create the unfortunate impression that where there's a warning, there must be something dangerous afoot.
And in fact there is, but that danger threatens only a relative handful of individuals - sulfite-sensitive asthmatics - for whom any exposure to sulfites could trigger potentially fatal respiratory problems. But sulfite-sensitive adults already know what they must avoid - a list that includes wine, fruit juice, sausages, salad bars and many other foodstuffs that routinely use sulfiting in production.
Totally sulfite-free wines are an accident of nature; but wines low in sulfites or free of added sulfites do exist. Let us explain. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Fermenting yeasts present on all grape skins generate naturally occurring sulfites in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm.).
According to Professor Roger Boulton, Ph.D., University of California at Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology, even if no sulfur dioxide is added to wine, fermenting yeasts will produce SO2 from the naturally occurring inorganic sulfates in all grape juices. Thus, says Boulton, it is impossible for any wine to be completely free of sulfur dioxide.
WHAT ABOUT ADDED SULFITES?
Although technical advances permit the industry to add much less sulfur, most serious winemakers and enology professors concur that to make a consistently stable wine, some sulfites must be added to those naturally present. A handful of winemakers go beyond that; they use no added sulfites at all. However, sulfite agents, when properly handled, are not intrinsically toxic to humans or to the environment, and many feel they are essential in order to prevent oxidation or bacterial spoilage. Therefore, American and European organic winemaking standards allow for the addition of strictly regulated amounts of SO2.
In the U.S., wines can contain up to 350ppm of sulfites. Organic winemaking standards, as adopted recently (12/2000) by the USDA, limit the use of sulfites to 100ppm in all finished products. However, most organic wines contain less than 40ppm of sulfites.
WHY DO WINEMAKERS ADD SULFITES TO WINE?
Sulfur has been used as a preservative in winemaking for quite some time. To prevent wine spoilage, European winemakers pioneered the use of sulfur dioxide (SO2) two hundred years ago. Unfortunately, freshly pressed grape juice has a tendency to spoil due to contamination from bacteria and wild yeasts present on the grape skins. Not only does sulfur dioxide inhibit the growth of molds and bacteria, but it also stops oxidation (browning) and preserves the wine's natural flavor.
SULFITES IN OTHER PRODUCTS.
According to Mitchell Zeller of the Washington, D.C. based Center for Science in the Public Interest, sulfites exist in a wide variety of products at levels that are comparable to, or in excess of the concentration that is found in wine. The presence of sulfites ranging from 6 to 6000 ppm is found in products such as fruit juices, dried fruits, fruit concentrates, syrups, sugar, jams, gelatins, cake toppings, baked goods, pizza dough, frozen and dehydrated potatoes, processed vegetables, cheeses, as well as in many prescription drugs.
In the United States, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) in conjunction with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates and limits the use of sulfites in wine and has done so for many decades. On January 1, 1987, a Federal regulation was passed requiring that as of January 1, 1988, all imported and domestic wines, beers and spirits exceeding 10 parts per million of sulfites bear the mention "Contains Sulfites" on their label. Wines that contain less than 10 ppm sulfites are not required to put "Contains Sulfites" on their labels; however, this does not mean the wine is "sulfite-free" or contains no sulfites. As established earlier, all wines naturally contain some sulfites.
That being said, there are a number of wineries who make it a policy not to utilize sulphur in either the vineyard or in the winery, and so there is just the bare, natural minimum in their wines. Frog's Leap (who makes terrific Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon) and Frey (best for their Zinfandel and Petite Sirah) in California, for instance, follow that regime.
Richard Grant Wrotham Pinot may also be a solution for those with a sensitivity to chemicals of any kind. This amazing wine is made from grapes which developed a natural immunity to the diseases that chemicals are usually used to spray against. Their immunity means that the grapes have been grown entirely free of chemical sprays of any kind. The taste is also quite amazing. See the Wine Lovers' Online Gift Store to order.
Another excellent source of wines made from organically grown grapes from France and around the world is the Organic Wine Company. Their web site contains a wealth of information about wine and health sensitivities.
Finally, recent evidence points to the presence of histamines in some wine (especially red wine) as being the real culprit for some people with sensitivities. For the average person, drinking extra water after drinking wine is usually sufficient to help clear their system of any negative influence.
Under relatively recent federal regulations governing organic labeling, a wine made with organic vineyard practices but using sulfites as a natural preservative must be labeled "Made with organically grown grapes." To qualify for the label "organic sulfite free," it must have no sulfites added during production; however, it may contain up to 10 parts per million naturally occurring sulfites, a small dose that occurs as a byproduct of fermentation. In short, "sulfite-free" isn't, really, although the sulfites are at such a low level that even sensitive individuals shouldn't be able to detect them.