Are sulfites really necessary to make wine?

The debate over whether or not we really need sulfites has been heated in the last few years. There is a growing population of winemakers that believe you just don’t need them and shouldn’t use them. There are also those who swear by using them in order to make wines that are stable and will stand the test of time.

Sulfites protect wine from oxidation and spoilage organisms. But are they really necessary?Which answer is right? The only one who can say is you.

In this episode you’ll hear what Winemaker’s Academy members have to say about this question. Unfortunately I was only able to share about 14 responses in the show (given how long it would have taken to share them all). If you’d like to read all the responses I received please read on below.

Please share your own thoughts in the comment section below and we can keep the sulfite conversation goin.

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Are Sulfites Really Necessary? – Winemaker’s Academy Member Responses

Yes I believe that Sulphur is needed in the wine making process. The SO2 is a antioxidant, anti ageing, anti microbial/bacterial and binds with acetaldehyde causing wines to loose flat flavours. All of these are very beneficial to wine and outweigh the risk of loosing a wine. Whilst I say this I still believe that the level of sulfites used in a wine should be as low as possible, only just enough to have the desired effect to protect the wine.

I certainly use them but my best friend’s grandfather didn’t and they still have 15 gallons of plum wine in carboys that I sampled the other day (after 8 years) and it was pretty great! I bottled a little bit of it that he had in 1 gallon jugs after I filtered it and it was just as good as it was when he was around. No sulfites but I could certainly feel the alcohol. It was also kept in a climate and light controlled area. I wish I had been old enough or interested enough to learn from him when he was around!

I’ve always felt that I’d like to minimize additives to my wine – especial ones that affect the flavor. Personally, I add potassium meta bisulfide only to kill the wild yeast immediately after crushing the grapes. I know others like to stabilize with it right before bottling but I’d rather suffer shelf life than add it. I don’t make enough wine to keep it more than a couple years so I just make sure every thing is clean and sanitary before bottling. I’ve kept homemade wines for as long as two years and have never had one start to go bad. I have a three-year bottle in my basement. I’ll let you know how that tastes if I ever open it. It’s got sentimental value so no guarantee that I’ll touch it 😉

The consensus Of experts say yes. The first thing is that yeast give off SO2 as a byproduct of fermentation, so it is next to impossible to make sulfite free wine. Second sulfite has been used to presurve wine since the Roman era or maybe even before. and since early times sulfur was burned in barrels before useing them to store or transport wine.

I have some old country wine recipes in which there is no mention of using any kind of chemicals including sulfites. They do talk about cleanliness and treat winemaking equipment and bottles like they do for canning (lots of boiling). I think sulfites improve your chances of having a successful batch of wine as do all of the more modern scientific winemaking practices.

I have a number of customers that do not want me to use sulfites. Each of them for their own good reasons. After having explained the natural presence of sulfites, they insist. I do not add sulfites for these customers at any stage. I handle the wine with more care and bottle the wine as soon as possible. Customers are aware of potential oxidization and will not age their wine for too long. No complaints so far.

I need to tell you that I grew up on wine land (Chile) yet, I am extremely ignorant on the many alleys that makes somebody a wine maker. Your question raised my interest because it is fairly traversal. Being that wine is a product that is attached to senses and normative s I would venture to say that Yes.. sulfites are necessary into wine (as we know it) Not necessarily true in archaic methods or in recent organic approach. I don’t know how the industry could unify all criteria and retain their current standards. It seems that to neglect them (sulfites) would transform either taste or structure ultimately offering something else to which we may need to get used to as a new kind of wine.

Are sulfites a necessary addition? My answer is ABSOLUTLY !!!! Sulfites are naturally present in wine as a natural side product of fermentation. S02 has three main purposes

1. to stop unwanted microorganisms such as foriegn yeast doing stuff you don’t want in your wine.
2. Stopping a fermention before it is done.
3. Most importantly to prevent oxidation.

There are 3 main times sulfites are added to wine.

1. Receiving the grapes. Add just enough to subdue natural yeast already present on the grapes approx. 20ppm. The selected yeasts we use to make wine are engineered to withstand much higher levels.
2. When fermentation ends. This depends on style as well as whether you want it to go thru malolactic fermentation Sometimes you want a wine to retain some sweetness such as port. or you say it’s good enough Then you add at this point approx 20 ppm more
3. Before bottling.

You want your wine to be as stable as possible for as long as the wines life expectancy should be. Depending on the style and quality of the wine and of course winemaker this number can vary wildly from 100 to 200 ppm total We use less rather than more. +\- 100 ppm

A few points to beware of.
1. Once it goes in its very hard to get out if not impossible for the home winemaker. Less is more. It is better to add less and then adjust rather than have to much.
2. So2 affects color as well as certain phenols and anthrocyanins which give the wine it’s smell and a bit of taste as well. This is one reason a wine tastes flat right after bottling The shock of bottling as well as the so2 addition. Which is why most wineries let there wine sit up to a year in a warehouse until levels go down.
3. So2 is not dangerous taken orally at normal levels. As a gas it’s another story so do not breath it in.
4. The reason why so2 has such a bad rap. Is because a small percentage of the population can have sensitivity issues to it or as a reaction due to drug interactions.
5. This is a mistake many home winemakers do is not adjusting the total so2 based on pH and free so2 already in the wine. You are looking for a end result of 0.8 ppm free molecular so2 in the wine. Any more and you can start to smell a slight burnt match aroma that is not pleasant. Less is more!!!!!!!

All in all in my experience as a wine seller and now as a winemaker (still in training ) I have tasted 100s of wines as well as a few unsulfited wines and they simply do not compare and are far more prone to problems and defects and in general do not have a shelf life of more than 1 year.

In regards to sulfites as a stabilizer, since moving to Colombia three years ago, I have not used them. I do believe in using Sodium MetaSulfite solution in water = 1 Tbls to about 1 quart as a sterilizer. No bad wines yet!!!

To answer your question on Sulfites you definitely need to add 50 ppm at crush and at the end of ferment ideal is 40 ppm with .08 molecular.this is pH dependent of course. Those folks who think you need not use it at all must be willing to take the risk of on wanted microbes giving off flavor and aroma

Yes,very necessary and I use sulphites in wine making to protect against microbes and oxidation. It is possible to over sulphite a wine and I have done that and then had to use hydrogen peroxide to correct the mistake. Vinemetrica makes a very easy to use instrument to tell you the level of sulphite in your wine. You also need to know the pH of your wine so that the correct level of protection is reach. Daniel Pambianchi’s book “Techniques in Home Wine Making” is invaluable on this subject and well worth the price.

Good question
In fact i am manufacturing ayurvedic products commercially.One category of our range of product is wine like.
It is called ARISHTAM.
I got the idea of adding sulphite to the arishtam from you only.
I am happy to tell you that it works and helped us a lot.
Rate of spoilage has came down dramatically.

Some winemaking books suggest using sulfides. One formula is to use about 1/2 teaspoon of potassium metabisulfite per 5 gallons after racking. We use just under 1/2 of the recommended amount to achieve a wine that will keep for a longer period of time. If there was a non chemical way to achieve a more stable wine, we would use it.

Matt, I don’t think Sulfites should be added to wine. Sulfites are in wine naturally so why add more. People think Sulfites
give the headaches and they may be right.

Let me start by using this quote from the May 2011 issue of “Wines and Vines”…

‘Sulfur dioxide (SO2 for short) is by far the most important additive used in wine. Many times it is the only additive. Its value derives from its ability to perform several critical functions. It preserves a wine’s freshness and fruit character by virtue of antioxidative, antimicrobial and anti-enzymatic properties. There is no other additive available to winemakers that can singlehandedly play all of these roles. The judicious use of SO2 is required to make high-quality, shelf-stable wine.’

With that being said, we practice the use of adding SO2 in our winemaking but use it very sparingly, very rarely exceeding 40-80 PPM adds at any one time. One of the tools we use to determine our adds is the “Free SO2” chart to maintain the desired molecular levels using our existing pH levels. We do the adds in small, periodic increments and watch the FSO and TSO as the wine progresses through fermentation and adjust as necessary to achieve our goals. Once we reach malolactic fermentation, we monitor the FSO very closely as the consequences of not doing so can be undesirably and/or irreversible.

So in conclusion, I do believe the use of SO2 is a very useful tool for the winemaker and one which can help to provide a more consistent quality product in the long run and as such, I believe that it far outweighs any derisive qualities it may bring to wine, real or perceived.

As someone new to winemaking I use Sulfites because I am not willing to spoil the batch. I think they help to stabilize and Finnish the wine.

If you wish to drink you wine all up within 6 months of bottling, you probably do not need sulfites. However, if you plan on aging it at all, Sulfites are an absolute must.

from my novice perspective, I would say sulfites are necessary. As you know, the antioxidant and inhibition of microorganism growth functions in sulfites are very important for the development of good wine. Yair Margalit, in Concepts in Wine Chemistry (3rd Edition) noted that an expert panel on food safety at the World Health Organization reviewed the issue of sulfite use (in 1975) and allowed it to “remain in the category of Generally Recognized as Safe list of food additives”.

I believe no, it’s not necessary. In bible times, they didn’t use it. I just use it in smallest amounts possible just for insurance, after all…. I have a LOT if time invested in my wine. Needed? No.

I’m a newbie,but I know several people who don’t use sulfites at all, and their wine is sometimes pretty good but not consistent. I made some Chambourcin last year without it &it turned out quite drinkable.

It is necessary for the grower to sulphite the fresh juice to prevent undesirable wild yeast to take over with unknown (maybe bad ) results before the planned fermentation is done.

It is necessary to lightly sulphite after the end of fermentation to prevent any further ferment for example before filtration is done so that the wine remains clear.

Regarding sulfites. I am too new to winemaking with fresh grapes to have an experienced opinion. I have used the bare minimum of sulfites in the three batches and only time will tell if that was a mistake or a blessing.

as a relatively new fermenter, I have been using sulfites to guard against bottle bombs. I just do not trust my instincts enough to know it is done fermenting

Having been an armature wine maker for 36 years and three years as wine maker of Binns Vineyard and Winery, Las Cruces, NM (1983-1986); I have never tossed out any batches of wine that I believe tells of success while using sulfites as a sterilizing agent to control unwanted yeast, mold, or bacteria. I have used bulk sulfur dioxide in commercial batches at the winery, meta bisulfites, and carbon dioxide to blanket vats during filtering, racking and prior to bottling.

One experiment that produced a heavy body red wine that old timers and locale Italians said reminded them of old country wine was made by what we called carbonic maceration. We packed whole red locally grown Zinfandel bunches in 55 gallon food grade plastic drums, a small lump or dry ice was added and sealed. After approximately two weeks the drums were opened and the mesh was pressed (the berries were completely broken down with intense color, high sulfite was added and barreled in used oak whisked barrels. This wine was filtered a short time later and was marketed in a minimum of time (by Thanksgiving). This was a heavy red wine excellent with our New Mexican chile food. What this process accomplished was the elimination of control of heat buildup of large mesh fermentation, pump over and time consuming tank processing. Never interred any in a contest, but was excellent table wine. Of course this Is the goal of most armatures is it not?

In summery I’m a believer in the use of sulfites.

Without sulfur, wine will become undrinkable

Yes we need sulfites. We cannot deny the science.

I have made wine both with and without sulfites. I think sulfites may ensure your wine will come out good.

I’m sorry but I really don’t know. This is my first batch so I don’t have much experience. The kit I have does say to add 1/4 teaspoon of metabisulphite if you are going to age the wine for more than 6 months which I plan on doing with at least some bottles so I was going to do it. It says it will not affect the flavor or early drinkability at all. I would be interested to know if it’s necessary or not. though so if you can let me know that would be great.

Yes…unless you have an allergic reaction to them.

I use sulfites. I know of just one winery in Israel which does not and they claim to have developed a special way of making wine with out sulfites. I had the wine and its great- especially for those for those with sulfite intolerance.

we defiantly need sulfites, from my experience

Matt (Academy Member)
it has been my observation that the use of sulphite in the stabilizing/clearing process when producing wine from a kit is useful, that it simply reduces the time to reach the finished product. Now, with wine produced from pure grape, I discovered last year (first time production) that using nothing, except filtering process that the wine still turned out quite cloudy with sediment. This was revealed by my using a small clear bottle, which after storing for a while showed the sediment left behind, as well as greatly staining the glass.

I just harvested this years grapes and have it in its ferment stages at this point. I will try using sulphite this time and see if it makes a difference.

I don’t add sulfite at all but I only make country style wines (so far) and haven’t had any in bottles long enough to test the no sulfite theory. However, I opened a 10 year old organic strawberry wine that was not made with sulfites and it was perfect!

Well, the use of sulfites in wine can be traced back as far as the ancient Romans, who discovered (supposedly) that it helps to preserve wine and keep barrels fresh. And of course sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation… but I DO think sulfites are important to help keep wine longer, and prevent spoilage.

Less is best. Sulfites react bad in me so before I started making wine I actually was drinking one I found with a fraction amount of sulfites and tolerated it quite well, however it was often difficult to find at times. So now I don’t use it in my wine and I’m happy and healthier.

I think that the sulphites in wine give me a headache, and therefore minimize their use in my winemaking except to cure a deficiency.

Yes, how else do you protect from oxidation, and re-fermentation especially when back sweetening.

It gives my wife a headache, even after one taste.

My opinion is conditional:
1. If I am using a kit, then I follow the directions. I think the builder of the kit has more knowledge than I and therefore follow their steps.
After all, that is one of the reasons that I pay for a kit.

2. For country wines:
a. If I intend to back-sweeten, then I use the sulfites to prevent further fermentation.?
b. If I do NOT intend to back-sweeten, then my opinion is that the alcohol content should control the growth of the yeast.

Photograph by: Brian Dooley

  • Andy Peterson

    Awesome work on this podcast! I like the way you handled it. I’d be interested to hear more on a variety of issues that people take different sides on. This may have been the biggest. Another similar one now is whether to inoculate for ML during primary or the customary after primary is complete.

    • This is a great idea Andy! I will put this question out there on the next podcast.