Everything You Wanted To Know About Sulfites (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Paul Chartrand of Chartrand Imports explains it all.

How can organic wines become more popular with the average wine drinker?

The whole sulfite issue has to be explained. Those of us in the industry have to choose whether we’re going to sell both types of wine, or one or the other. We have to explain what the advantages are of each, and identify which customers are likely to pick them.

Explain the basics of sulfites.

The earth has sulfur in it naturally, and so do many food products that come from the earth. Grapes are one of those, but so are oranges and eggs that come from chickens. Sulfites exist in our bodies naturally. It doesn’t affect anybody.

Centuries ago, people discovered that sulfur was a strong cleansing and antibacterial agent. It began to be used in cooking and storage containers. And it’s been used for a long time in winemaking as an additive to stop bacteria and oxidation. It also has the unique property of binding with oxygen molecules, so they don’t tend to oxidize the wine.

Bacteria and re-fermentation are handled technically now, but oxidation still exists as a danger to wine, particularly white. And sulfur dioxide is the most effective thing to stop it. There’s no other equivalent product that’s been found.

And if you make wine without added sulfur, it’s going to be more fragile. It will start to lose its aromas sooner, start to lose its color and eventually become muddy and cloudy. That can take years in some cases, but it can also take months.

If sulfur is naturally occurring, what’s the argument against it?

Because the sulfites that do any good must be added. The ones that are in the grapes naturally do nothing to help preserve the wine. They’re inconsequential. It’s sort of a coincidence that what happens to be in grapes naturally can be added to wine in a freer format to prevent oxidation.

It’s definitely not a dangerous substance. It’s not a carcinogen. It’s not highly toxic. It doesn’t stay in the earth for many years, potentially poisoning people. In small quantities it goes in and out of the body and doesn’t really do any harm; unless you happen to be allergic to it. That’s the whole thing. It’s an allergy issue.

Some people are allergic to peanuts.

It’s exactly on that level in my mind. There are people who disagree with me, but I think the majority of scientific opinion would be on my side. It’s an allergy issue.

It might be a wine quality issue too. If someone adds too much sulfur, it can affect the aroma and taste and cover up errors in winemaking. But, in small judicious quantities, a little sulfur can go a long way to helping the wine stay good longer.

The reason it became such a big issue in the U.S. was that large amounts of sulfur were being used on foods in the 1980s, and there were serious reactions to it. The government decided it needed to warn allergic people, and this was a peak time of consumer pressure on government to do these kinds of things. Some people want to be warned. But the great majority don’t need to be warned if the stuff is used cautiously, as it is in wine.

When you add sulfur in any form to wine, eventually it becomes a sulfite, because it combines with oxygen. But, often, when it’s added, it’s not technically a sulfite; it’s sulfur dioxide. It’s a more naturally existing form of sulfur. Therefore, it’s true; you put a label on wine that says it contains sulfites, but it’s not the same form of sulfites that’s added to many foods.

It’s one of the reasons why people in the organic industry misunderstood it. They think sulfites are like nitrides and nitrates; they’re really bad and shouldn’t be in any food that has the word organic on it. And when the original organic law was passed by Congress in 1990, that text was written in. People who drafted that law had no idea that sulfites were even in wine, or why they were in it. They just thought, “Well this makes sense. Nobody wants organic food with sulfites in it.”

They even resisted having wine labeled “made from organic grapes” for some years. They took a stance of absolutely no sulfites in anything that says organic. But we convinced them that there was a use in wine that wasn’t as dangerous or upsetting to people.

All that happened when the public was just becoming aware of organic wine as a niche market. Unfortunately, the two got so entwined and confused that most people still think organic wine means wines without sulfites, without even relating it to the agricultural aspects. That’s one of the biggest disappointments of that whole progression of thought. Because it just so happened that when organic wines came into the market the U.S. decided to make sulfite warnings required on all foods and wines, most people assume the two were connected, when they weren’t. That linkage led many people to not even think about grape growing as the important thing in organic wine.

How would you like to see organic wine regulations changed?

Sulfites shouldn’t be as big a division in the category. Both types should be called organic wine. Those without sulfites could clearly state that on their label, and those who add sulfites could state that on their label. I think of it as the difference between an organic pretzel with or without salt. Salt can be harmful to some people, but it’s not inherently dangerous to the earth or to living things in small amounts.

But that was long ago decided. That battle is not going to be refought. I’m comfortable with the division that there is now; although I think it’s made the perceptions harder for people.

Right now, there are some court cases that may put the whole organic food industry in that same footing. A recent federal court decision may end up forcing foods to be labeled “made from organic ingredients” instead of “organic” if they have any synthetic products added.

The way wine is now.

Exactly. Which I’d sort of like to see, because I’ve been living with it long enough (laughs). There are 34 synthetic ingredients allowed in processed organic food. They have to put it on the ingredient statement, but they can still say it’s “organic.” The dividing line is 95% or more organic ingredients, as long as nothing else in it is off that list.

The wine industry is sort of discriminated against because of the misunderstanding. Even though we have 99.9% organic ingredients, and the only non-organic ingredient is sulfur dioxide, all we can say is “made from organic grapes.” But tortilla chips that have various additives get away with this myth that they are more organic, when they’re not. It’s just that our ingredient was misunderstood more than theirs.

Visit Paul Chartrand’s website at www.chartrandimports.com.

Categorized as Learn

By Adam Morganstern

is the editor of the Organic Wine Journal.