Demystifying Wine Sulfites

Sepia Drop SquareSulfites in wine are ingredients about which there are a lot of misconceptions.  Many people avoid wine entirely because of sulfites, and for the most part this is not necessary and is based on false information.  Most bottles of wine say they contain sulfites, and consumers have all kinds of different ideas about what they really are.

Before deciding not to drink wine because of the sulfites, consider the facts.  The word sulfite is used to describe sulfur dioxide, which is a preservative that is an antibacterial and antioxidant, which is used to sterilize the wine to prevent oxidation and growth of bacteria and mold.  Sulfur dioxide has been used for centuries as a preservative.

For the most part, contrary to popular belief, sulfites in wine are harmless.  Most of the population is not affected by them at all.  Only a very small percentage of the population does not have the enzymes necessary to digest sulfites in wine.  Asthmatic people are the most prone to having problems with the sulfites in wine, but even the percentage of asthmatics who are affected is low.  People claim to be allergic to sulfites in wine, but truthfully less than 1% of the population has a true sulfite allergy.  Even those who do can usually drink sulfites in lesser amounts.  Many also believe that sulfites in wine cause headaches, but usually sulfites are not the real culprits.

The amount of sulfites allowed in wine is regulated in each area of the world.  If the wine contains more than 10ppm, then it must include “contains sulfites” on the label.  Most wine does contain sulfites naturally even if none were added, but in quantities too small to register.  Many people believe red wine contains more sulfites and is responsible for more headaches for this reason, but in fact red wines contain far less sulfites than its white and sweet wines counterparts.

No conclusive evidence shows that sulfites in wine cause headaches.  Some of the other ingredients are more likely culprits.  In fact, levels of sulfites in wine are generally well below the maximums, so it is not likely that the sulfites in wine are actually causing the problem.  Most people do not realize that other foods generally contain far more sulfites than wines do, and consumers usually do not have problems eating them.  Some foods that commonly have high sulfite levels are dried and preserved fruit, vegetables and cheeses.

Note that some sulfur-free wines do actually still contain minimal amounts of sulfites.  The truth about sulfites in wine is that they are actually natural bi-products of yeast, so they will still be present even when not added.  Most concur that to make safe wine, it is necessary to add sulfites, since wine is perishable.  However, some winemakers have made sulfur-free wines for those with true allergies, the downside being that these wines have a short shelf life.

For the most part, those wines made with organic grapes are safe enough for those who believe they have reactions to sulfites.  If you truly feel that you are part of the 1% that is affected by sulfites, keep an eye on the labeling and if a wine says “made with organic grapes”, then this means they are wines produced with certified organic grapes but may not be processed in the winery under the USDA organic rules, and thus may contain some added sulfites.

Experiement and pay attention to which wines do your body good, you may just open up a whole big world of wines you never thought you could have.