The Deal with Sulfites in Wine
Those little words “Contains Sulfites” on the bottom of a label often stir up concern. What’s even more puzzling is that the US is one of the only countries (along with Australia) that require bottles to be labeled. So what gives? How much sulfites are in wine and how do they affect you? Time to get to the bottom of sulfites in wine and discover how they’re not as bad as you might think.
Are Sulfites in Wine Bad?
Not for most people. Sulfites aren’t the cause of red wine headaches. There are, however, some notable exceptions to this rule.
About 5-10% of people with asthma have severe sulfite sensitivity and, thus, the US requires labeling for sulfites above 10 parts per million (PPM). Sulfur is on the rise as a concern among humans as a cause of health problems (from migraines to body swelling) because of its prevalence in processed foods.
Stacking up Sulfites in Wine
How Much Sulfur is in Wine?
It depends. Based upon the production method, style, and the color of the wine, sulfites in wine range from no-added sulphur (10-40 PPM) to about 350 PPM. If you compare wine to other foods, it’s placed far lower on the spectrum. For example, many dry red wines have around 50 PPM.
- Wines with lower acidity need more sulfur than higher acidity wines. At pH 3.6 and above, the sulfites needed is much higher because it’s an exponential ratio.
- Wines with more color (i.e. red wines) need less sulfur than clear wines (i.e. white wines)
- Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulfur to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.
- Wines that are warmer in temperature release free sulfur compounds (the nasty sulfur smell) and can be “fixed” simply through decanting and chilling the wine.
Why are Sulfites in Wine?
Very simply, sulfites are a preservative to wine, which is a volatile food product (ever open a wine and it’s bad by the next day?). Wineries have been using sulfur in and around wine for a long time; in fact, as far back as ancient Rome. Back in Roman times, winemakers would burn candles made of sulfur in empty wine containers (called Amphora) to keep the wines from turning to vinegar. Sulfur started to be used in winemaking (instead of just cleaning wine barrels) in the early 1900’s to stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing. It also helps in the extraction of pigments in wine, making red wines “redder.”
Can I Smell Sulfites in Wine?
Very sensitive tasters have been noted to smell sulfites in wine at around 50 PPM. What’s interesting is that the warmer the wine, the more molecular sulfur it releases. This is why some wines have a nasty cooked-egg aroma when you open them. You can fix this issue by decanting your wine and chilling for about 15-30 minutes.
Should I Be Concerned About Sulfites in Wine?
If you have sensitivity to foods, you should absolutely try to eliminate sulfites from your diet. Eliminating wine could be necessary. Perhaps start your sulfur witch hunt with the obvious culprits (like processed foods) before you write-off wine.
Sulfur used in Roman wines mentioned in: Beckmann and Johnston et al. A History of Inventions and Discoveries (1846)