Wine Folly Logo
Deep Dive

The Bottom Line on Sulfites in Wine

- Updated

Those little words “Contains Sulfites” on the bottom of a label often stir up concern. What are sulfites in wine? And, are they bad for me?

are-sulfites-in-wine-bad-for-health

The Deal with Sulfites in Wine

The United States is one of the only countries (along with Australia) that require bottles to label sulfite contents. So what gives? How much is there, and how do they affect you? Let’s get to the bottom of sulfites in wine.
 

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:

If you have asthma, there is about a 5-10% chance you have sulfite sensitivity. The United States requires labeling for sulfites in wine above 10 parts per million (PPM – or 10 mg/L).

Overall, sulfur is prevalent in processed foods and thus, is on the rise as a concern for health problems (from migraines to body swelling).

sulfites-in-wine

Stacking up Sulfites in Wine

Surprisingly, sulfites in wine are surprisingly lower than a lot of processed foods.

How Much Sulfur is in Wine?

Wine ranges from about 5 mg/L (5 parts per million) to about 200 mg/L. The maximum legal limit in the United States is 350 mg/l. A well made dry red wine typically has about 50 mg/l sulfites.

  • Wines with lower acidity need more sulfites than higher acidity wines. At pH 3.6 and above, wines are much less stable, and sulfites are necessary for shelf-life.
  • Wines with more color (i.e., red wines) tend to need less sulfites than clear wines (i.e., white wines). A typical dry white wine may have around 100 mg/L whereas a typical dry red wine will have around 50–75 mg/L.
  • Wines with higher sugar content tend to need more sulfites to prevent secondary fermentation of the remaining sugar.
  • Wines that are warmer release free sulfur compounds (the nasty sulfur smell) and can be “fixed” through decanting and chilling the wine.

Why Are Sulfites in Wine?

Very simply, sulfites help preserve wine and slow chemical reactions, which cause a wine to go bad. (Ever open a bottle of wine, and it’s bad by the next day?)

The process of using sulfites in wine has been around for 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 cleaning wine barrels) in the early 1900s to stop bacteria and other yeasts from growing.


thiols-wine-flavors-aroma-compounds

Can I Smell Sulfites in Wine?

Although sulfur compounds are somewhat unrelated to sulfites, sensitive tasters have been noted to smell sulfur compounds in wine. Sulfur compounds in wine called thiols range in flavor from citrus-like smells to cooked egg-like smells.

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 a sensitivity to sulfites in foods such as french fries, cured meats, cheese, and canned soup, you should try to sulfite-free wines. Or, eliminate wine (especially if you are doing an elimination diet). Fortunately, several natural wines do not use sulfites in processing. These wines can taste a lot different than what you’re used to, but some are fantastic!


Get The Book!

Your wine smarts deserve to be on the next level. Get the James Beard Award-winning book!

Learn More

Buy the Book - Get the Course!

Get the Wine 101 Course ($29 value) FREE with the purchase of Wine Folly: Magnum Edition.

Learn More

AboutMadeline Puckette

James Beard Award-winning author and Wine Communicator of the Year. I co-founded Wine Folly to help people learn about wine. @WineFolly

Cover Image for Spicy Red Wine Quick Guide

Spicy Red Wine Quick Guide

Spicy red wine – Syrah, Chianti, and Californian Zinfandel. Learn more now about your palate and how to choose bold spicy red wine.

Read More
Cover Image for Wine Folly’s Handy Champagne Guide

Wine Folly’s Handy Champagne Guide

There’s a lot to consider when opening a bottle of Champagne for your celeberation. We’ve got you covered with our Handy Champagne Guide.

Read More
Cover Image for New Zealand Chardonnay – Jewel of the South Pacific

New Zealand Chardonnay – Jewel of the South Pacific

Dive into New Zealand’s Chardonnay – your next favorite wine is waiting to be discovered in a small land with passionate wine makers.

Read More
Cover Image for Clean Wines: The Truth About Biogenic Amines and Wine

Clean Wines: The Truth About Biogenic Amines and Wine

Looking for clean wines? Let’s explore some of the fears around wine additives and sulfites and what’s actually giving you a headache.

Read More
Cover Image for AOC Wine: Decoding French Wine Classifications

AOC Wine: Decoding French Wine Classifications

When it comes to AOC wine and French classifications, it can feel really complicated really fast. But if you know some basics, you’ll find that understanding comes pretty easily.

Read More
Cover Image for Light Strike: Why Wine and Sunlight Don’t Mix

Light Strike: Why Wine and Sunlight Don’t Mix

Unless you want its fruity and floral aromas to become those of cooked cabbage, wet cardboard and wet dog, make sure your wine and sunlight stay far away from each other. Keep reading for more on this and what else you can do to protect your wine.

Read More