What About Sulfites in Wine?

Question from Michael: You said organic wine doesn’t have added sulfites. Why does wine have sulfites anyway?

Reply: Hi, Michael. Thanks for writing! The post on organic wine brought up a lot of questions about sulfites. Maybe it’s not the tastiest subject, but let’s take a look.

Lots of people have the impression that adding sulfites is a recent practice, initiated by American producers. But, it’s the labeling laws that are new – not the sulfites. And, many believe that the Europeans don’t add sulfites because for a long time when you went to France or Italy on vacation you didn’t see the sulfite warning like you did here at home. But, European laws have finally caught up with America.

Adding sulfur to wine and food as an anti-oxidant and anti-microbial goes back for centuries. Even the Romans were said to use sulfur to seal their barrels and jugs. So, it’s a preservative.

As I mentioned, sulfites occurs naturally in wine as a byproduct of the fermentation. However, that very small amount isn’t enough to keep the wine stable very long. A new wine with no added sulfites can be very tasty at first. But, the fruit fades and the wine starts browning and going off much too quickly for most people. I should add that, fortunatly, spoiled wine isn’t harmful – just offensive!

From the list of permissable preservatives, sulfur is the one of choice because it’s compatible. since it’s already there, unless too much is added, it won’t stick out in the aroma or flavor. Quality producers generally avoid stronger preservatives, like potassium sorbate, because they’re too noticeable. And, the best winemakers keep their sulfur levels very low, compared to what the law permits. If you pick up the smell of a just-lit matchstick, you’re smelling the sulfur. That’s not supposed to happen.

So, if we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we make good wine without adding sulfur? All I can say is the universities and research professionals are trying. So far, their success is only by way of reducing the levels. Because of better sanitation in winemaking, the total parts per million (ppm) have come down over the last 50 years but we’re not all the way there yet.

By the way, if wine gives you a headache and you blame the sulfites, enologists will tell you you’re mistaken. Dr. Andrew Waterhouse at UC Davis has suggested that you test your sulfite sensitivity by eating some brightly colored dried fruit. While wine, typically, averages between 50 and 100 ppm, the dried fruit can be as high as 1,000! If that fruit doesn’t give you a headache, you’ll need to look for another culprit. 


As an aside, these travelers I mentioned assumed the sulfites in American wine gave them headaches when it was probably much more to do with the alcohol! Here’s the scenario: While in Tuscany, you shared a bottle of Vernaccia di San Gimignano over lunch in and felt great – ready to go climb those cobble-stoned hills! But, when you split a bottle of Napa Valley Chardonnay, you get a headache and all you can think about is taking a nap. Here’s the deal: The Veraccia was probably 10 or 11% alcohol. The Chardonnay was closer to 14%.   

 So, on to tastier subjects! Cheers!


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