Sulphites are necessary in the winemaking process to keep the wine from spoiling. Sulphite works by releasing free sulphur dioxide (FSO2), which inhibits yeast, mold and bacteria. Sulphites occur naturally during the fermentation process. Sulphite is also added directly to wine after fermentation, to prevent oxidation. Oxidation in wine follows the same pattern in an apple slice exposed to air—the wine browns and takes on a flat 'cardboard' taste. Sulphite binds with oxygen, preventing browning and flavor loss.
Some facts that might clear up any misunderstanding about sulphites:
· Sulphites are a recognized food additive.
· All wine contains sulphite; even those labelled ‘no sulphite added’. All wine produces sulphite naturally during fermentation, up to a level of about 10-PPM. Even with no addition of outside sulphite, wine always contains it—it cannot be removed.
· The legally allowable amount of sulphite is 70-PPM FSO2 in dry table wine. The amount of sulphite provided in wine kits is only 15 to 20 PPM FSO2, at bottling.
· Nearly all dried fruits and meats contain sulphites. Raisins have up to 1250 PPM. Bacon, orange juice, potato chips, cider, candied fruits, sausages, and even pancake syrup contains sulphite: often at levels higher than found in wine.
· The human body produces its own sulphite as a by-product of metabolic activity. There is no such thing as a sulphite ‘allergy’. Allergic reaction is the body’s response to the presence of foreign proteins. Sulphite is not a protein, and cannot cause an allergic response. What is commonly described as a ‘sulphite headache’ is a reaction to bio-amines. Bio-amines are compounds formed in wines for various reasons—the commonest being malolactic fermentation. Since wine kits don’t go through malolactic they have no bio-amines.
This is not to say that sulphites are benign: the vapor that comes off a liquid solution smells sharply of sulphur matches and can irritate the throat and eyes. People with asthma or emphysema should avoid the vapor. It can act as a bronchial constrictor, aggravating any breathing problems.
A note on leaving out the sulphite: if you choose to do so, you must leave out any sorbate addition as well. Sorbate can be converted into another substance, called Hexadienol, by lactic-acid bacteria. These bacteria are suppressed by sulphite, but without it they florish. Hexadienol, unfortunately, smells of rotting Geraniums.
The upshot is this: without sulphites you have to be very careful to keep all of your equipment sanitary and you still must to drink your wine quickly, before it spoils, probably within two months.
If you choose not to add sulphite, your kit will not be warranted against spoilage. If you’d like more information on sulphites and their effects, consult your family doctor or local health authority.