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The eternal question of Sulphites in Wine 28 Feb '19

Last week I was on SIC’s “Programa da Cristina” (a National TV Show) surprise to José Fidalgo (actor and good friend), with two other friends. While waiting in the dressing room, the actor José Mata joined me. Wine popped in the conversation, of course. We talked about organic wines, a good white for Summer, the classic story of the “red preference” and something unavoidable, the question of sulfur.

Certainly, you’ve noticed that all wine back labels contain the expression “contains sulfites”. Do you know what they are and what are they for?

Sulfites are compounds which exist naturally in fermented foods, being them wine or bread, but they’re also a winemaking ingredient. In this case, we give the name of sulfur.

Although it’s believed that sulfur may have been used in winemaking by the Romans, there’s no actual evidence to prove it. The oldest written register of its use dates back to 1487, in Germany. More than five centuries have passed and we still for the same ends, being the most important ones the control of microbial development – in other words, to reduce the factors which could ruin a wine – and as an antioxidant that will preserve it, not letting oxygen reduce its quality.

There are several myths about sulfur. The most known one is that it’s responsible for headaches from hangovers. It’s not likely that sulfur is the only responsible and it’s more likely that headaches are caused by a little too much wine, or intolerance to histamine which some wines may contain.

Sulfur is a toxic compound from brimstone, which helps the winemaker control its wines. Its use in wine is limited by law in a much tighter way compared to other foods, where there its presence could be 10 times higher. In minimal intervention winemaking, rawer by nature, the idea is to use sulfur without altering any of the wine’s qualities, which requires experience, knowledge, and boldness to work without this safety net. Extremisms to the side, I think a homeopathic dose of sulfur in the critical phases of wine production can be the difference between success and complete failure. Finding the balance is critical. This is valid for almost everything in life.

Hélder Cunha
The wine’s my life