The sulfites issue is surely an important one in the world of natural wines, especially when we talk about classy Italian wines or about the French ones; the thing is: why add to an originally natural good something that can be bad for the drinker? Of course this question doesn’t come alone, but opens a fan of other doubts: what are sulfites? Are sulfites bad for my health? What is sulfites sensitivity? Are there sulfites-free wines? Today we will try to answer some of the most common questions about the tricky querelle of sulfites and wine.
What are sulfites?
First thing first: what are we talking about when we say the word “sulfites”? Sulfites are preservants and antioxidants used to preserve food and drinks from the growth of bacteria and help avoid the goods going bad. What people often get confused about is that sulfites can be added to food and drinks, but they are also naturally created by chemical reactions in goods as wine and beer during fermentation. This means a thing: there is no such wine as the “sulfites-free” one. However there is the “no added sulfites” one, that means that what we are drinking is as natural as possible, since the producers added few or none sulfites at all to the ones that the wine naturally developed during the production.
Why sulfites are added to the wine?
As first thing, sulfites aren’t exclusive to wine; they are present as well in many kinds of food we normally eat (e.g. dried fruits, mushrooms, shrimpsa) since they are added to prolong their shelf life. They are mostly known in wine because people started wrongly to connect the presence of sulfites with the headache that sometimes you can get from drinking wine, and also because the natural wine movement (especially the natural wine associations) highlighted the addition of sulfites during wine production as one of the proof of the growing industrialisation of what we get inside our glasses.
We think that sulfites shouldn’t be added randomly and in high quantity to wine as it should be a genuine and natural good as it was in the past, but this doesn’t mean that the wine can’t or shouldn’t contain them. Natural sulfites are good and actually they are important, as in normal and controlled quantities they preserve wine, stopping it from becoming vinegar. This is the main function they have as well in the making of industrial wine: more the sulfites, more the shelf life of the bottle, more the gain from selling it for longer. The high presence of sulfites also makes it easier for the wine to be transported, as generally it is less delicate.
Are sulfites bad for health?
This is a kind of a tricky question to answer on a blog dedicated to natural wine, as the main battle against the sulfites addition is fought by organic and biodynamic wine producers. The thing is: yes, sulfites can be bad for health. No, they aren’t bad for everyone’s health, as they can hit with symptoms the small percentage of drinkers who are sulfites-sensitive. In this last case, however, sulfites are very dangerous, as they can cause allergic reactions going from the simple skin rush to asthma attacks.
This danger grows as not only someone can find out being sulfites-sensitive casually while sipping their first glass of wine, but also it is possible to develop a sulfite sensitivity during our life, especially after forties. This means that it is a completely possible scenario that even someone used to drink wine from all their life can suddenly become allergic or sensitive and risk their life.
We can say therefore that the high risk that sulfites represent is a good reason to try and cut their usage where possible and not strictly necessary.
Natural wine producers are in the first rows in the fight about sulfites use and abuse and of course the health risk is one of the reasons; the other is surely the renovated need for goods that are genuine, healthy and produced with the customer in mind instead of just the thought of making money. Ergo yes, you can most-likely consume sulfites as the sensitivity percentage is pretty low, but we advice you try and purchase a nice, traditionally made wine (try for example this outstanding bottle of Chianti by the Podere della Bruciata estate).
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