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Understanding Sulfites

Fri, Dec 02, 22  |  news

What are sulfites?

Sulfur dioxide (SO2), or sulfites develop naturally as a by-product of fermentaton, therefore, there is no such thing as a 100% sulfite-free wine. All wine, beer, cheese, and even pretzels contain some natural sulfites. Wineries have been using sulfur around wine for a long time, even as far back as Ancient Rome and Egypt.

Additional sulfites can be  used by a winemaker to preserve and protect the wine from bacteria, impede oxidation, and prevent the wine from fermenting or spoiling. Wines without any added SO2 generally have a shorter shelf life, about 6 months, so the sulfites guarantee that the bottle of wine you open will taste the way the the winemaker intended, even after aging.

Common Misconceptions-

A common misconception with wine is that sulfites cause headaches, or worsen hangovers. However, Medical research is not definitive on the relationship between sulfites and headaches. Research points more towards tannins, sugar, and histamines as the culprit for headaches, not to mention alcohol which can cause dehydration and cause head pain. To learn more about wine headaches, click here.

Often times, red wine is to blame for headaches, as the misconception is that they are sulfate packed. In actuality, red wines typically contain less sulfites than white. The skin of the red grapes supplies the wine with ample tannins, which act as a stabilizing agent. This combined with malolactic fermentation and anti-oxidants help to preserve the wine, so less sulfur dioxide is needed during winemaking and maturation.

White wines and rosés are not left in contact with their skins after crushing for long, or at all. For this reason they are more prone to oxidation and tend to be given larger doses of sulphur dioxide. Sweet wines get the largest added doses.

Measuring Sulfites

The level of sulfites in wine is measured in “ppm”, or parts per million. Naturally occurring sulfites are generated in very small amounts ranging from 6 to 40 ppm. The legal maximum sulfite level for wines made in the United States is 350 ppm, with most wines averaging about 125 ppm. On January 1st, 1987 the United States mandated that all wines with over 10ppm sulfites, added or naturally occurring bear the words “Contains Sulfites” on the label in order to warn the small amount of the population with sulfite allergies.

Are You allergic to sulfites?

In actuality, only a small percentage of the population (about 1%) have an allergy to sulfites,  more commonly found in severe asthmatics. Wine contains about ten times less sulfites than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 ppm. So if you eat dried fruits with no reaction, chances are, sulfites are not the reason behind your symptoms!

How about Organic Wine, is that lower in sulfites?

It is important to note the differences between “organic wines” and “wines made from organic grapes.” Wines with labeled “US Certified Organic” cannot use ANY added sulfites and must have less than 10 ppm of sulfites in the finished product, regardless of whether the wine is foreign or domestic.

Whereas “wines made from organic grapes” follow different guidelines, they may contain up to 100 ppm of added sulfites in wine. Most “wines made from organic grapes” in actuality contain around 40 ppm to 80 ppm of SO2. Certified biodynamic wines may contain sulfites up to 100 parts per million. To learn more about Organic wine, click here to read our popular blog on the topic.

See all the low sulfite wines we offer here

We have more varieties of wines made with organic grapes as well as biodynamic wines in store, at a wide variety of price points. With such a breadth of tasty wines to choose from, perhaps you will be inspired to do your own tasting. If so, do let us know which wines YOU like best. You can comment right back here on our blog, on Facebook or in the store.  We are excited to hear your opinions!

–Pauline Fink, Staff