Sulphite Facts

Potassium Metabisulphite is a stable source of sulfur dioxide in winemaking. The use of sulfur compounds is not a recent innovation. The great Dutch shipping empire popularized the use of sulfur in the 16th century by refusing to ship any wines not treated. They insisted on sulphites because sulphite treated wines were the only ones that survived a long sea voyage without turning into vinegar.

Sulphites work by releasing free sulfur dioxide, which inhibits yeast, mold and bacteria. It does this in two ways: one, it kills some of the organisms outright, and two, it blocks the surviving organisms ability to reproduce. If your winemaking equipment is physically clean and you've rinsed it with a sulphite solution, nothing will grow on it.

Sulphites are also added directly to wine after fermentation, to help prevent oxidation. Oxidation in wine follows the same pattern that you see in the cut edge of an apple—the wine turns brown and takes on a flat 'cardboard' taste. Sulfur binds with the oxygen in the wine and prevents this damage.

Many people worry that they may be allergic to sulphites. True sulphite allergies are very rare. It's more likely that they have a histamine reaction to red wine, or that they have been over exposed to sulphites in the past. In the 1970's restaurants would douse their salad bars with 2000 PPM (parts per million) sulphite solutions in order to keep the produce fresh. Mixing with food acids, such as dressings or vinegar, would cause the salad to release clouds of sulphite gas, provoking unpleasant reactions.

Some facts that might clear up any misunderstanding about sulphites:

Sulphites are a recognized food additive. Their use is controlled by the federal government.
All commercially available wines in the province of British Columbia contain sulphites, even those labeled 'Kosher' or 'Organic. The legally allowable amount is 70 PPM.
Nearly all dried fruits and meats contain sulphites. Raisins, for instance, have up to 250 PPM.
The amount of sulphite provided with kits will result in a level of between 35 and 50 PPM in a finished wine.
Sulphites are produced by all grape based wines naturally during fermentation, up to a level of about 10 PPM. Even with no addition of outside sulphites, wines will still contain them.
The upshot of sulphite use is this: without sulphites you'd have to be very careful to keep all of your equipment sanitary and you'd still have to drink your wine quickly, before it spoiled, probably within one or two months. If you have any more questions about sulphites, please call us here at Beer and Wine Hobby. We'll be glad to answer them.