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Sulfites - What are They?  Do you need to Use Them?  Why?

Courtesy of  Mike Carraway

Sulfites are a naturally occurring compound that nature uses to
prevent microbial growth. They are found on grapes, onions, garlic,
and on many other growing plants. No wine can ever be "sulfite
free", since they come in with the grapes.  So - you will have
sulfites in your wine no matter what.

Why Add Sulfites to Wine?

Winemakers have been adding additional sulfites to wines for
thousands of years. The Greeks and Romans used sulfur candles to
sterilize their wine barrels and amphorae. Sulfur protects damage
to the wine by oxygen, and helps prevent organisms from growing in
the wine. This allows the wine to "last longer" too, which lets it
age and develop all of those complex flavors we all love and enjoy
so much. If you didn't add sulfites, the wine would turn into
vinegar in a matter of months.

Sources of Sulfites

There are basically 2 sources that you can get online or at a local
wine/brew shop.  One is potassium metabisulfate and the other is
the easy one:  Campden Tablets.

How Much Sulfite to Add?

Most wine recipes call for adding sulfites BEFORE you add the
yeast.  The idea is to completely sterilize your must and kill any
bacteria or other things that may have a chance to take hold and
start growing during the fermentation process. 
Most recipes call for 1 campden tablet for each gallon of wine at
each racking.  I have tried this over and over and using this type
of concentration, you will have wine that has a BAD sulfurous
taste.  This is one of the BIGGEST MISTAKES that home winemakers
make.  It usually results in pouring out the batch because it
tastes so bad.  The amount needed to actually protect the wine
while staying below the TASTE threshold is a fine line.  I use ½
campden tablet per gallon and have never had a problem so I
recommend the same.

What to do if you use Too Much Sulfite

This is an easy fix that I discovered recently.  Since the reason
you put sulfites in wine is to protect the wine from growing things
and oxidation (exposure to oxygen), then, it follows, that if you
expose the wine to oxygen, some of the sulfites will evaporate.  All
you have to do is Rack the wine into another clean container but
splash it all over the place while doing so. 
Let it sit for a few days and then rack it back, again,
splashing the wine all over the place instead of "quietly" racking
it.
A few times back and forth, splashing as you go, should get rid of
a lot of the sulfites and make your wine taste as good as ever!

You will discover TONS of information like this in the Winemaker Secrets Inner Circle.  

Hop on over there and take a peek now.

Cheers!

Mike
Your 21st Century Winemaking Coach