A lot of people come into the shop asking if we have sulphite free wine. Well, the truth is that no wine is sulphite free. Sulphites are sulphur based chemicals. These occur naturally during fermentation, as well as being added as a preservative, disinfectant or antioxidant. The naturally occurring sulphites are not really the issue, it is the added ones which cause the problem in people with a sensitivity or allergy to them.
So, what is the problem with sulphites? Well, many people with a sensitivity to these chemicals can suffer from headaches (and not the hangover type), rashes, hot flushes, tightening of the skin, sickness and diarrhoea. Some people with asthma experience shortness of breath or get tight chested and find it hard to breathe, and shockingly, those people with a severe allergy could suffer from anaphylactic shock which could actually kill them.
So why do we need them? In wine, sulphites are often used to clean and disinfect the grapes, they are used as a preservative and also have a role in killing off yeast and unwanted bacteria.
Oxygen is a big problem for the winemaker. If there is any oxygen in the wine, it will oxidise the wine and ruin it, so sulphur dioxide (usually) is added to the wine, these molecules then attach themselves to the oxygen molecules and prevent the wine from being destroyed. However, if too much is added, it creates a surplus of ‘free’ molecules floating around in the wine, looking for oxygen to attach to. These ‘free’ molecules are the ones which can cause issues for people with an intolerance to sulphites. What happens is that, on consumption of the wine these sulphites then look for oxygen in the body, causing a reaction and stimulating the production of histamines which is what starts the allergic reaction.
So, without the addition of sulphites to wine, many wines would be ruined before leaving the winery, and this is too much of a risk for the winemaker to take. However, the addition of too many, can seriously affect the drinker who is sulphite intolerant.
The usual level of sulphites occurring naturally in wine is between 10 and 40 Parts Per Million (PPM), and then, when more are added in the production process, total sulphite levels could reach 350 PPM (still less than packet soups, french fries and dried fruit). At this level people with an intolerance would definitely feel some ill effects. However, some wines only have a low level of additional sulphur dioxide, which does actually find some oxygen to attach to, thus reducing the risk of reaction. It's accepted wisdom that someone who has a severe allergy could drink wine with 35 PPM of sulphites added at bottling, therefore our selection uses this yardstick as the upper limit for sulphite content.