Wine Education Wednesday: Sulfites in wine

Chances are, the wine you drank last night had a "contains sulfites" advisory on the label. Ominous as that sulfites may sound, sulfites are a terribly misunderstood component of wine. We’ve set out to demystify a few sulfite myths here.

– First let me say that just as some people are lactose intolerant or allergic to pollen, there are people who are sensitive to sulfites, even the small amounts in wine (which contains about 10mg/glass; 80mg/liter), and this sensitivity can cause a reaction. Asthmatics can be particularly sensitive. This small percentage of the population must also avoid other sulfite- heavy products such as dried fruits and molasses. If you think you're sensitive to sulfites, try eating a handful of dried apricots and see how that affects you – dried fruits, particularly apricots, have about 10 times more sulfites added than your regular glass of wine.

– Sulfites are not the cause of the mysterious red wine headache. Some drinkers do get a headache from red wines, but studies have not yet been able to find the exact culprit there, though histamines are thought to have some effect. White wines often have more sulfites than reds, so if no headache is caused by whites, but you do get them with reds, its not the sulfites.

– Almost ALL wines contain some percentage of sulfites. Yeasts naturally create sulfites in wine during fermentation, so if your wine was fermented, then its got some sulfites hanging around. What the USDA’s advisory label primarily refers to are added sulfites.

fermenting juice– Sulfites are added to wine as a preservative since wine is a perishable substance. They are not dangerous. They have been a part of winemaking for centuries, though in different forms. They kill bacteria in wine, which we certainly don’t want, and they protect the wine from oxygen, which can turn a wine to vinegar pretty fast.

– Almost all winemakers add some sulfites to their wines. Again, winemakers want to preserve their wine, and sulfites are the safest way to do it. You can find wine with no added sulfites, which can be stated on the label. These are the only wines can be certified organic by the USDA. There are other organic certification programs that do allow minimal sulfites to be added.

– There is no difference in the French or Italian wine you drink here vs. the one you drank in the home country. Winemakers do not add more sulfites in wines coming to the US than they do to wines that remain local. Most other countries do not require a sulfite warning on the label, so you will only see the warning on wines purchased in the US. But again, that does not mean that a Bordeaux here in the US has more sulfites than the Bordeaux sold in Bordeaux. Just the labeling laws differ.

So, those are some notes on sulfites. A great article to read on sulfites and wine is here, done by researchers at UC Davis.

6 thoughts on “Wine Education Wednesday: Sulfites in wine”

  1. I’ve heard that sulfites are more common in new world wines than old world wines. Is that true?

  2. Good question, Lindsay. Sulfites are most common in dessert wines as well as sweet wines. Then white wines, and the least sulfites are usually in dry red wines. They can also be common in mass produced wines where the winemaking team where bulk grapes receive bulk sulfer. Many of these mass produced wines come from the new world (Australia, California)and some (like blush wines, etc) are sweet, so they have a good dose of sulfites. That’s probably where the association of new world wines and higher sulfits comes from. Your best bet for wines with lower sulfites are wines from a winery or winemaker who believe in minimal intervation in the vineyard and winemaking process, so they only add the bare minimum of additives to the wine.

  3. This is a great article. Too many people think sulfites are the cause of many problems. As you and I know, it is not true.

    And that fact that ALL wines have sulfites. No matter how many times it is mentioned you will see some who do not believe.

    Thanks for bringing to this everyones attention.


  4. I just returned from a trip to Sicily with relatives. My brother-in-law insists that the "house or local wine", the wine served in restaraunts in liters and not from a bottle, is sulfite free (meaning no added sulfites). And he isn’t the only person that I have talked with who always insist that the "local" wine does not contain added sulfites. I know from reading articles such as this that all bottled wine is likely to have added sulfites. But I’m not sure what to beleive about "local wine" not served out of bottles. Is it a myth thta "local wines" contain no added sulfites or is my brother-in-law correct?

  5. I just recently returned from the Abruzzo Region and the Amalfi coast and experienced multiple bottles of wine from each region and from one of my favorites, Montepulchino. I found that I could have multiple glasses of red or white and not feel any "so-called" side effects of sulfites. I have the same non-reaction to the same wines in the US. I also spoke with a wine expert on my travels back to the US and he stated that the wines in Italy are the same Italian wines in the US….no additional additives because they are imports. I do believe that drinking wine in Italy during their traditional eating hours of 1 to 2pm in the afternoon and then taking a long slow walk followed by a power nap makes you feel energized. In the US we typically have our wines after work when we are tired and then head off to bed…no walking and no energy.
    Just my thoughts….Steve

  6. Rich – it is totally possible that your brother-in-law is correct. It would make sense that wines put in large containers for restaurants or for locals filling up their jugs contained no added sulfites – or at least less than the amount used in bottles. Depends on how the winery uses those sulfites. There are some that are added during fermentation, but I have a feeling "local wines" as you talk about do contain less than what goes in the bottle as they do not require as much stabilization – no long journey accross the sea and no need to age for a long period. Would love to meet a winemaker out there and ask!

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