Sulphites in wine have been a topic of debate for many years. Some people swear that sulphites are the root of all evil when it comes to wine, while others claim that they don't cause any problems whatsoever if you drink wine. So what's the truth? Are sulphites bad for you? And if so, how can you find wines with lower levels of sulphites to drink and enjoy? In this blog post, we'll discuss everything you need to know about sulphites in wine.
What are sulphites?
Sulphites (spelled sulfites in the US) are a group of sulphurous compounds that are added to wine as a preservative and antioxidant. They occur naturally in wine, but the level of sulphites can vary greatly from wine to wine. On the low end, sulphite levels can be as low as 5 parts per million (ppm), while on the high end, sulphite levels can be as high as 250ppm.
Are sulphites in wine bad for you?
Only about 1% of people are seriously allergic to sulphites, but a larger percentage of people with sulphite sensitivity may experience minor symptoms like sinus congestion and headaches when they drink wines with higher levels of sulphites, as well as skin reactions like rashes. Usually, the level of one's reaction will depend on the level of sulphites in the wine, which is why low-sulphur wines (even wines with some minimal sulphur added) can be enjoyed by sulphite sensitive individuals without any issues. Those who have a sulphite allergy have severe reactions to sulphites, and should avoid sulphites entirely to avoid adverse reactions, so unfortunately, they aren't able to drink wine at all.
Can you get sulphite free wines?
There is no such thing as sulphite free wine, since sulphites are a natural occurring byproduct of the winemaking process, namely fermentation. However, some wines do contain higher or lower levels of sulphites than other wines depending on how much sulphite (usually in the form of sulphur dioxide, or SO2) was added. A wine with no sulphur additions whatsoever might contain 5-20ppm total of SO2, while a mass-produced commercial dry wine could be as high as 200ppm (the legal limit in Australia for dry wines, sweet and off-dry wines can legally contain even more at 250ppm).
When are sulphites added to wine, and does it matter?
Sulphites are typically added to wine at two different stages: during the crushing and destemming process, and then again just before bottling. Sulphites added prior to fermentation act as a preservative and help to prevent spoilage. However, sulphites added at this stage also cause the yeast to produce acetaldehyde as a defence mechanism. The acetaldehyde then binds to the sulphur molecules preventing them from harming the yeasts but ultimately remains in the wine, increasing its acetaldehyde content.
The issue with this is that acetaldehyde is a toxin that is one of the leading contributors to hangovers. So if you're looking to avoid or at least minimise the severity of your hangovers, look for wines that not only contain a lower level of added sulphites in total, but have had sulphites added only after fermentation has run its course and yeast has died off. This is much easier said than done, since this information is only available by asking direct questions of the winemaker. Nowhere on the bottle will it tell you when the sulphites were added, and the staff at the bar, restaurant, or bottle shop where you're buying the wine are unlikely to know either.
Are sulphites present in other foods?
Yes, sulphites are present in many other foods as sulphite additives are often used to preserve foods and prolong shelf life. Sulphite containing foods include dried fruits like dried apricots, processed meats, pickles, and even some types of seafood. So if you're sulphite sensitive, you may want to avoid these foods as well, or look for foods that don't use sulphite additives.
That said, sulphites in wine aren't the only reason one might have an adverse reaction to wine. Alcohol affects us all differently, and if the reaction you're having carries over to something like spirits, then sulphites probably aren't the culprit.
Red wine also contain higher levels of histamines and biogenic amines that can cause reactions. This is why some people react specifically to red wines and erroneously blame their issues on sulphur when in fact red wines on average contain less sulphite than white wines. Red wine headaches can often be caused by these amines rather sulphites in wine.
How do you find low sulphite wines?
Unfortunately, this is sometimes a difficult task based on the current labelling of wines. Wine labels in Australia have to have the words "Contains Sulphites" on the label if they have more than 10ppm of sulphites, though this label is unhelpful, as this threshold is so low, many winemakers who don't add sulphites to their wines will still put it on their label, simply because the naturally occurring sulphites might exceed that threshold.
Sometimes the label might say something like "Contains Minimal Sulphites" or "No Added Sulphites/Sulfites" and these are good wines to go for, however, most producers don't do this, so you'd be missing out on many great wines if you excluded every bottle without those words on it.
You could ask the staff at the bottle shop, however since most questions they field are about the actual flavour, structure, and quality of their wines, they will be unlikely to know the answer and may even answer with a guess. Sommeliers at restaurants tend to be a bit more informed and are a safer bet, as are proprietors of independent boutique wine shops versus larger commercial chains.
The only real way to find out is again, to ask the winemaker. When you're at a wine tasting, for example, ask if sulphites have been added and when. Most winemakers are more than happy to tell you about their wines and how they make them. You can also look for wine producers who identify as "natural" as well as they are more likely to use minimal sulphites or no sulphites at all in their wines.
One of the easiest ways to source low sulphur wines is to get your wine from Feravina. Feravina only stocks wines with less than 50ppm total sulphites, and sulphur is only added post fermentation (usually just prior to bottling), to minimise the downsides of sulphur and acetaldehyde. We've had many happy customers who had issues with reacting to wine in the past tell us they can drink our low sulphur wines without the wine headaches, skin rashes and sinus reactions. All our wines are also made using natural winemaking, from organically or biodynamically grown grapes, contain no other additives or preservatives, are sugar-free and lower in alcohol, making them a perfect option for wine lovers who care about what's in their bottle of wine, and want to make the healthiest choice when it comes to drinking wine.
The bottom line on sulphites in wine and where to find low sulphite wines
In the end, if you want to drink wine and have a sulphite sensitivity, it's unlikely you'll find sulphite free wines to avoid sulphites completely, however you can make smarter choices by sticking to wines with lower levels of sulphites, as well as wines whose sulphites were added post-fermentation to reduce acetaldehyde and therefore symptoms like wine headaches and hangovers.
Discover a better way to enjoy wine today. Shop our low sulphite red and white wines here.