Do I have to use sulfite in my wine?
Readers Write, and we Answer!
Dear Wine Wednesday,
Do I have to use sulfite in my wine kit? I'm concerned about additives in my food and I wonder if I can avoid it. I know it prevents spoilage, but could I pasteurize my wine or filter it to keep it from going bad?
Concerned in Connecticut
Dear C in C,
No, you don't have to use sulfite in your wine kit. After all, it's your kit and you can do anything you want to it--add oak, leave out oak, back sweeten, blend, all those good things are open to you, as well as making it without sulfites.
We need to state up front that there's no scientific or medical reason to avoid sulfite. Not only is it in nearly everything you eat (raisins! soup! prescription medicine! frozen fish!), it's already floating around in your bloodstream, as your body actually makes sulfite on its own. In addition, even if you don't add sulfite to your kit, your wine (like all wine ever made) will have sulfite in it, because yeast make it as they ferment the juice. If you'd like a great big (and slightly shouty) discussion of sulfites, check out the Master Vintner blog on Sulfite.
Keep in mind that your wine will spoil if you don't add it, and not just because of bacteria, mould or wild yeast: sulfite prevents oxidation as well as suppressing bacteria and spoilage organisms. No sulfite means your wine is unpreserved.
You can't substitute sorbate for sulfite either. Sorbate prevents the growth of certain classes of organisms, but not others, and those others can turn sorbate into a horrible stinky compound that ruins wine utterly.
Pasteurizing, heating a food product for a period of time to kill spoilage organisms is technically possible (people do it at home all the time with canned goods) but it's really bad for wine. Think of the difference between canned fruit and fresh: canned fruit is very nice, especially in winter, but nobody will ever mistake it for fresh, with the cooked, heavy taste that it has. And even pasteurized the wine will turn brown quickly without sulfite.
Sterile filtering sounds good on paper, but it's a technically very tricky proposition. Big food processing corporations do it, but they have sterile conditions and laboratories that monitor every step of the process, and the equipment is costly and requires training to use and maintenance to keep in good order. And the wine will still oxidize!
If you do leave the sulfite out, you'll need to treat the wine very gently, taking care not to agitate it or aerate it, and you'll need to drink it up very quickly before it spoils and browns, probably less than 8 weeks after bottling. Also, to avoid a terrible spoilage issue, if you leave out the sulfite, you have to leave out the sorbate.
One last thing: Master Vintner guarantees that you'll make good wine, every time and stands behind every kit we make, when you follow the instructions! Our advice for good wine is to follow the instructions, add your sulfite and relax!