Sulfites in Wine – Ally or Enemy?

Taste of Wine without sulfites won’t taste ordinarily alive, according to the godfathers of wine movement. The flavor is different. Though, everyone’s opinion on these terse couplets is polarized!

In reality, Sulfite is added to wine during processing as a preservative, so it does not lose its flavor. For some people, their preference is organic wines, sweet wines like Moscato, or European low sulfite wines. While other obliviously will take anything that comes in the form of wine.

Whether the content of sulfites can be damaging or not to a human is something that will try to decipher. In fact, Sulfite is not the culprit of a hangover. Nevertheless, there is no proved medical research data done.

For starters, we will demystify the myths and misunderstandings about sulfites, wine, and headaches.

What Are Sulfites?

Sulfite is a compound containing an ion of (SO2) or sulfur and oxygen. A substance that naturally occurs in some foods or can be produced in labs. It is used as an additive in food that acts as antioxidant and antimicrobial to preserve food and some beverages.

Winemaking using sulfur has been there since Ancient Rome. How then did they produce wine, considering there were no laboratories? They would burn a piece of sulfur, then sterilize empty casks by lowering the burning sulfur into the cask. And voila! The wine was ready.

Sulfites in Food and Beverages

Sulfite occurs naturally in some foods, and so, it’s an unavoidable by-product meant to ferment. Most of the beverages that contain sulfites are wine, beer, cider, black tea, and vinegar. Some foods like baked and canned goods, potato chips, and cheese, also contain sulfites. So, you may be going for sulfite-free wine, but you are not entirely free from Sulfite.

When a winemaker forswears sulfites, there is a vast risk of bacterial infection. Sulfite is used to impede oxidation, preventing the wine from spoiling. Have you ever wondered why aged (red) wine is expensive? Well, time alters the overall flavor of the fruit in the wine and lowers tannin and acidity — the reason why you enjoy a pleasing flavor in the wine. A younger wine means no SO2 and, therefore, has a shorter shelf life of about six months.

FDA Regulations on Sulfites

While shopping, did you pay attention to wine labels that say “contains sulfite”? At least in the U.S., since 1987, wine containing sulfites at levels of 10parts per million to 350ppm has to be labelled as “contains sulfite”. This is mandatory according to their legislation. Naturally, a glass of wine with an occurring level of SO2, without additives would weigh around 10 to 20 ppm. With most averaging wines at 125 ppm, the legal maximum sulfite level allowed for the U.S. is 350ppm.

Are Sulphites Bad for you?

Though the consumption of sulfites is almost harmless, it may trigger those who are asthmatic or are prone to severe asthma. They may not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulfites in their bodies. That’s why it’s essential for labeling of products containing sulfites at a level of 10pmm or more. Some sulfite side effects to watch out for are regular headaches, broncho-constriction, dizziness or nausea, skin flush, and nasal congestion. Nevertheless, FDA estimates that less than 1percent of the U.S. population is sulfite-sensitive. Meaning it’s quite rare.

Myths About Sulfites in Wine 

We will demystify four myths I found familiar and believed about sulfites and wine.

Myth #1: Biodynamic Wine or Organic Grape Wine are Free of Sulfites

Interestingly, even an organic sulfite-free wine, may contain 10 to 40 ppm sulfites. This is because of the fermentation process as a by-product of yeast metabolism that happens naturally to produce Sulfite. However, wine made from organic grapes means that the grapes are certified, but the other additional ingredients are not. They may contain up to 100ppm sulfites.

Myth #2: Red Wine contains higher sulfites 

Apparently, white wine has more sulfite content than red wine. Red wine gets ample tannins from the skin of red grapes, which act as a stabilizer. When this is combined with malolactic fermentation and antioxidants helps for wine preservation; hence it requires less sulfur dioxide.

Myth #3: Sulfites in wine cause headaches

A substantial fraction of people have a misconception that red wine causes headaches. Research done, has shown a likely result of eating packed food with Sulfites like Wine and cheese. Since they release histamines that can aggravate this, although dehydration caused for not drinking water alongside wine contributes to headache.

Myth #4: Wine Should Be Avoided Because It Contains Sulfites

Wine has a minuscule amount of 20 to 200PPM parts per million of sulfites. These are less damaging compared to a handful of dried fruits, which contain a dose of 500 to 1000 PPM. If you are not allergic, enjoy a glass of wine.

How to Get Wine Without Sulfites

Most winemakers today are making organic wines with less or zero sulfites. Generally these wines comprise dry red wines as their natural tannins preserve the beverage naturally. Nevertheless, they need to take a high obsessive level of hygiene. Their ultimate goal should be total purity.

Best ways that you can have your wine without worry of sulfites addition are:

  • The good news is, the mandatory labeling of Wine with Sulfite will clearly show on the bottle of wine. Please don’t forget to read the label.
  • Choose certified Organic Wines and not wine made from organic grapes.
  • Ask for help from the sales associate if you are shopping in a wine shop or local vineyard. They will take you to the sulfite-free wines section where they have a short shelf life.

Dealing with a Sulfite Sensitivity

If your responsiveness to Sulfites in foods is wild, like frozen french fries, cheese, canned soup or cured meats. You should try for sulfite-free organic wines. Also, food that is not pickled or canned. Life is still beautiful for you while you savor your drink.

In conclusion, given the apparent lack of health risks, I hope we have deciphered the bewilderment of Sulfite in Wine. Cheers!