Editor’s Note: While Carl is out recovering from a surgery to repair an aortic dissection we’ve asked some of his good friends to fill in with their wise words on wine in his absence. Today’s blog is another from guest blogger Tom Welsh, general manager and partner at Tapastrie restaurant in downtown South Bend, Indiana. Another big “Thank You” to Tom!
Someone recently asked me if we had sulfite-free wine in the restaurant. Knowing that this doesn’t exist (sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation), but not knowing a lot more, I started reading about it and the misconceptions and myths surrounding the question of sulfur in wine.
The poor sulfite gets a pretty bad rap. It gets blamed for headaches and hangovers and it is assumed to be unhealthy in general. It is true that 1% of the world’s population has some degree of allergic sensitivity to sulfur compounds, especially those with asthma, for whom it can have serious effects. But without asthma, low exposure to it is inconsequential. Sulfur is a natural substance and is found in many of the foods we eat like dried fruits, frozen foods, processed meats and molasses.
Sulfur has been an additive used to preserve and stabilize wine for centuries. Its first written mention was in a 1487 German decree that allowed sulfured wood chips to be burned in newly made barrels that would be used to store wine. It is widely assumed though, that the practice was employed by the ancient Romans, Greeks and perhaps even Egyptians, as they used it as a food preservative.
Today sulfur dioxide is added in small quantities at different stages of the winemaking process for a couple of reasons: 1) During fermentation it is added to kill bacteria and wild yeasts or prevent them from developing in the wine, and 2) As an antioxidant to stabilize the wine (sulfur molecules bond with oxygen to prevent oxidation, the process that deteriorates wine over time) and maintain it in the bottle the way it entered the bottle. Without this intervention, wine would be very volatile and most wine would start out bad, be very inconsistent from bottle to bottle or become vinegar very quickly.
I have heard people say that when they go to Europe and drink wine they never get a headache because they don’t use sulfites over there. But they do. They just are not required to put it on the label. In the U.S. (since 1987), wine labels are required to have the phrase “Contains Sulfites” if the concentration is greater than 10 parts per million. This is not a warning that there is poison in your wine! Labels on certified organic wines will say: “No Added Sulfites” but never “No Sulfites.”
Science has found no direct link between sulfites and headaches. People who get headaches only from red wine may be having an extreme reaction to tannins and histamine that is produced in fermentation, but this is very rare. Perhaps the fact that red wines generally have higher alcohol contents has something to do with that.
Alcohol is a diuretic, meaning that it dehydrates us and makes us urinate more frequently. Hangovers are the direct result of dehydration. If we would drink water in proportion to alcohol, the “morning after” would be a lot easier on us. To quote our wise and venerable friend Walter Ruston (Bar Manager/Bartender at Tapastrie), “Hydration is the key to successful drinking!”
Geoff Kruth, Master Sommelier and President of GuildSomm says, “First, no matter how much it jives with our romanticism, wine is not a natural product – vinegar is. Wine is a product of man, and an enlightened one at that. [Sulphur] is a natural product with a long history throughout civilization; brimstone in the Bible is in fact sulfur. It is the properties of SO2 that inhibit oxidation and bacterial infestation that have allowed wine to flourish over the last 2000 years. So from my perspective, to love wine is to love sulfur dioxide.”
And I love wine!
Calendar of Events
- March 3rd – National Mulled Wine Day
- April 17th – International Malbec Day
- May 4th – International Sauvignon Blanc Day
- May 9th – National Moscato Day
- May 21st – National Chardonnay Day
- May 25th – National Wine Day
- June 11th – National Rosé Wine Day