On Sulfites

I work at a wine shop on the weekends (come visit me at DCanter, all you DC locals!), and one of the most frequently asked questions I get, besides “what’s downstairs?” (a wine cellar, duh) and “do you have a bathroom?” (yes), is “does this wine have sulfites in it?”

So, let’s discuss sulfites, one of the most misunderstood aspects of the winemaking biz.

First. There is no wine without sulfites. I know, I know. Your friend at work, your aunt, your mom’s cousin, they all told you that sulfites in wine are totally unnatural and will give you headaches and make you feel terrible.

Well, they’re wrong. You should now cast sundry and grumpy aspersions on them for causing you to unnecessarily avoid wine.

There is not a single wine on the planet that does not contain sulfites.

AND - and this will really blow your mind - a glass of orange juice contains more sulfites than a glass of wine.

Worldview shattered? You’re welcome.

Sulfites actually occur naturally. As in, they are not man-made, they are not a creation of The Man In A Lab, messing with nature. Sulfites occur all by themselves as a byproduct of the fermentation process. Specifically, sulfites are a natural by-product of the yeast metabolism that occurs during fermentation. As the yeast eat up the sugar and turns it into alcohol, a byproduct is SO2, or, sulfites. Rotten grapes can also be a factor in upping the sulfite concentration in a wine - if grapes aren’t thoroughly sorted, some bad bunches can slip into the mix and give you some extra SO2.

Sulfites are also a necessary part of winemaking; there are very few wines made without them. That is because wine is perishable and prone to oxidation. Sulfites are either encouraged in fermentation, or added after fermentation, to maintain freshness. If a wine doesn’t contain any sulfites, it will have a drastically lower shelf life (that is, if it’s kept in perfect storage conditions). A winemaker has very little control over how the wine is stored after it leaves the winery, so sulfites help keep the wine fresh in the meantime.

So, what does it mean when a wine says “contains sulfites” or “sulfite-free”?

In the US, any wine that has above 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites must list “contains sulfites” on the bottle. Wine that says “sulfite free” isn’t technically sulfite-free, it just has less than 10 ppms of sulfites, and all of it occurred naturally - that is, no excess SO2 was added in the production. What’s there is there because of the natural course of fermentation. In the US, wines that identify as “made from organically grown grapes” must not have any added SO2. (Yes, some wineries add SO2 on the back end to help preserve the wine; many wineries are phasing out this practice.)

To give you an idea of scale, consider that 10 ppms is the minimum for a “contains sulfites” designation. A handful of dried fruit? Well, that has about 1,000 ppms of sulfites.

Have you had dried fruit? Did you get all puffy, have itchy hives, get nausea and your blood pressure plummeted? No? Then you’re not allergic to sulfites (only about 1% of the population is actually allergic).

Let’s knock down some other sulfite myths while we’re at it, shall we?

Sulfites in wine don’t give you headaches (at least, the medical research on this is not definitive). The alcohol in wine gives you headaches. In red wine, histamines and tannins can play a role in making you feel achy the next day (or the same night…). Histamines are allergens, and can trigger that puffy redness, hives, and headaches. Before trade tastings or exams, I have been known to take half a Zyrtec or a half a Benadryl to ward off wine histamines.*  But, at the end of the day, the only way to ward off headaches is the way we all know - drink water. Glass of wine, glass of water. Etc.*

Another statement that I hear frequently is from returning vacationers who drank “bottle after bottle” of wine in Europe and “never got a headache” because European wines “do not contain sulfites.” Well, as discussed above, this is simply not true. Unlike wines in the US, European wines aren’t required to label the presence of sulfites - but that doesn’t mean they aren’t present. As mentioned, they are a natural part of the fermentation process, so they are alway present! Three things to consider here:

First, the reason you may not have gotten a headache drinking in Tuscany is because you were on vacation. In Tuscany.

Second, you may have been drinking better wine, in that many “good” European producers don’t add sulfites at the end of production. If you’re used to drinking cheap, mega-produced wine in the US, it probably has some amount of added SO2 - although this is not always the case. Just a possibility.

And finally, European (or, Old World) wines tend to have less alcohol than American wines. Generally at least 2 percentage points less. So, you can drink more with less negative effects.

*My lawyer roommate has requested that I clarify that this is not medical advice and no medication should be taken without consulting a doctor. And that taking medicine with alcohol could be considered a bad idea. Consider yourself legally disclaimed.

*I may or may not consistently follow my own advice.