Except in rare cases, sulfites in wine are not a cause for concern. In fact, their preservative qualities are part of the reason we can enjoy older vintages of wine at all. Without sulfites, they would turn into undrinkable, spoiled vinegar. Still, the idea of wine without sulfites has become a popular marketing ploy. This is in part because we live in a culture where people find the names of chemicals scary. Many people also just don’t understand what sulfites are or what they do? How much sulfite is there in wine? Can you be allergic to sulfites? Here, we’ll answer these and other frequently asked questions about sulfites in wine.
What are sulfites?
The term sulfites generally refers to sulfur dioxide (SO2) compounds. They’re naturally made by wine yeasts during fermentation, so you will never find a wine that is truly sulfite free. The natural amount is quite small, usually between 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm). But, because sulfites are such an excellent preservative, winemakers typically add more. Sulfur dioxide is great for stopping fermentation and protecting the wine from bacteria and oxidation. This means that wines will stay fresh much longer.
How much sulfite does wine contain?
Sulfite concentrations in wine range from 5 to 200 parts per million and depend on a variety of factors, mainly related to how stable they are naturally.
- Acidic wines are more stable, so less acidic wines tend to have more sulfites.
- Tannins are natural antioxidants, so wines with more color tend to have less sulfites.
- Wines with more sugar are prone to secondary fermentation, so sweeter wines often have more sulfites to prevent this.
Dry whites tend to have about 100 ppm sulfites, whereas reds have about 50-75 ppm. The legal limit in the US is 350 ppm, but bottles of wine must be labeled if they contain as little as 10 ppm.
So, it’s a very small amount, though the added label looks alarming with its all caps ‘CONTAINS SULFITES’ notice. Is this notice really a cause for concern?
Are sulfites in wine dangerous or unhealthy?
No, not for most people. Chances are good that you consume a lot of other foods that have even more sulfites in them than wine. If you haven’t had a strong reaction to those, you’re fine. Less than 1% of the population is truly sensitive to sulfites.
There’s no reliable test for sulfite allergies, so many people end up self-diagnosing if they have symptoms. Like a lot of such things, people tend to overdiagnose themselves.
True sulfite sensitivities are most common in people who also have asthma. If they are sensitive to foods or drinks with sulfites, they might experience:
- Flushed skin
- Hives and itchiness
- Upset stomach, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Difficulty swallowing
- Drops in blood pressure
- Trouble breathing
If you simply get a blush on your cheeks when you drink a glass of wine, however, you’re likely just fine. (We’ll talk about red wine headaches later, too.) Unless you get strong reactions while eating other foods that have sulfites, then there’s no need for you to specifically look for wine without sulfites.
What other foods contain sulfites?
Sulfites occur naturally in foods like eggs, garlic, onions, leeks, lettuce, asparagus, tomatoes, and soy. It’s also a common preservative in the food industry. You’ll find it in jams, pickles, canned seafoods and soups, maple syrup, and a variety of other processed foods. It’s found in some of our favorite guilty pleasure foods, like cured meats, bacon, potato chips, and french fries. Dried fruits have some of the highest levels of sulfites, at thousands of parts per million compared to under a hundred parts per million for a dry red wine.
So, if you often have a side of fries with your burger and haven’t had an allergic reaction, there’s no need to worry about buying a special wine without sulfites.
If sulfites are safe, why is there a label on my wine?
Sulfites are safe and natural, so why bother listing them at all? It’s because like most of our food, wines are subject to regulation. This particular labeling began in the 1980’s when it was suspected that salad bars were overusing sulfites. They were adding it to lettuce and other veggies to keep them from turning brown. Unfortunately, some people who were not expecting a heavy dose of sulfites had bad reactions.
So, wines with sulfites are labeled for the same reason processed foods containing peanuts are also labeled. It has been deemed a significant enough health risk for those with allergies and it helps them avoid exposure. Sulfites can be an extreme risk to those with true allergies, so the labels are intended to protect them.
If you’re not allergic to peanuts, do you even look at labels for its inclusion? Probably not, because “peanut” doesn’t sound dangerous to you. Hopefully after this post, “sulfites” doesn’t either. 🙂
Do organic wines have sulfites?
Yes, all wines naturally contain sulfites, even organic wines. In order for wines to be labeled organic, however, they cannot have added sulfites. Note that this is only true of bottles labeled “organic wine.” If it just says the wine is grown from organically grown grapes, it might still have added sulfites.
Do sulfites cause wine headaches?
Many people incorrectly think they’re sensitive or allergic to sulfites because wine gives them a headache. Again, sulfites are found in wine in fairly low quantities. Unless you are asthmatic and also get symptoms from eating other sulfite-rich foods like bacon, french fries, and dried fruit, it’s unlikely you’re reacting to the sulfites.
Are there components of wine that might cause headaches? Yes, but they’re not the sulfites. The likely candidates are:
- Tannins. These compounds give red wine its color, astringency, and bitterness. They’re often touted as a possible cause of the dreaded red wine headache, too. If you also get headaches after drinking strong black tea (which is also rich in tannins), then this might be the cause of your wine headaches.
- Histamines. Our bodies usually release histamines in an allergic response. Research has shown that aged foods and drinks, like wine, can also inspire the histamine response, which can cause headaches. If you take an antihistamine before drinking wine and it wards off the headache, you’ve found your answer.
For most of us, just drinking too much wine causes the headache.
Do sulfites cause hangovers?
No, it’s the alcohol in the wine that causes your hangover symptoms after too much drinking. You can drink and absorb alcohol a lot faster than your body can metabolize it. As part of this, the alcohol has a diuretic effect, which means it makes you pee. This means that too much alcohol will dehydrate you if you don’t replace it by drinking water or something else without alcohol.
Some people blame the sulfites because they think the compound is specific to wine, but it’s not. Beer also contains sulfites and, as we’ve listed above, it’s a preservative that’s used in a lot of foods and drinks.
Where can I find wine without sulfites?
All wines have natural sulfites that come from the fermentation process. Some wineries claim that their sulfite numbers are at 0 ppm, but most likely have some small amount.
For the lowest sulfite wines out there, look for organic or NSA (no sulfite added) wines. Our favorite place to find interesting wines is Wine Searcher. Check out these handy links to find wine without sulfites near you:
- Cabernet (Organic)
- Merlot (Organic)
- Pinot Noir (Organic)
- Sauvignon Blanc (Organic)
- Chardonnay (Organic)
Again, make sure it’s certified organic with no sulfites added, not just made with organically grown grapes.
Can I remove sulfites from my wine?
Some say you can slightly reduce the sulfites by decanting the wine and letting the sulfur dioxide release on its own. It’s a great excuse to buy a beautiful decanter like this one:
There are also various types of drops and filters on the market that claim to remove sulfites.
- 5- Bottle Pack: SULFITE REMOVING DROPS: For Wine and Champagne
- Wine Purifier - Ullo purifies any white, rose, or red wine by removing only the artificial sulfite preservatives and none of the natural compounds that make every wine unique. This patented Selective...
The Final Verdict
Is it worth seeking out wine without sulfites? If you have a true sulfite allergy, then yes. To those of you who must avoid bacon, cured meats, and french fries due to sulfites, we’re glad you can enjoy a glass of wine with us.
If you do not have a real allergy, however, our advice is not to worry about it. Sulfites are not harmful to your health and they’re found in other foods in far greater quantities anyway. It doesn’t make sense to avoid them in wine if you’re not avoiding them everywhere else.
Keep in mind, too, that sulfites are the reason that you can enjoyed a lovely 1960 Borolo from your cellar. They preserve the flavors and freshness of the wine so that it can age well and be enjoyed in the years to come.
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