Sulfites in Wine: What They Are and How They Affect You

Imagine for a moment that you have a beautiful bottle of 1982 Lafite Rotschild (valued at $4,349!). As you uncork it, you anticipate the cinnamon-spiced exotic notes of herbs and black currants delighting your palate and dancing across your tongue. You pour a glass, take a sip, and thrill to the taste of...vinegar?

Fortunately, this scenario is complete fiction. Why? Because that incredibly expensive bottle of wine contains sulfites. 

What Are Sulfites and Why Does Wine Contain Them?

Sulfites, also known as sulfur dioxide, are naturally occurring and an added preservative found in wine and many other foods and beverages. 

Naturally occurring sulfites are antimicrobial agents produced as a byproduct of yeast metabolism during fermentation. 

Sulfites added by vintners during the winemaking process preserve freshness and keep the wine from oxidizing or growing funky bacteria and yeast you definitely do not want to swirl around in your glass.

What’s more, sulfites keep wine from turning brown, a rather unpalatable image when you think about pouring yourself a sulfite-free glass of brown Rose´.

The inclusion of sulfites in wine is strictly regulated. In fact, any wine that contains more than 10 parts per million (PPM) must display the words “contains sulfites” on the bottle’s label. 

Most wines average about 80 PPM of sulfite. For perspective, dried fruits typically contain 1000 PPM of sulfite while French fries tip the scales at 1900 PPM. Many of the foods you enjoy are chock full of way more sulfites than wine, including baked goods, soup mixes, jams, canned vegetables, potato chips, soft drinks, and juices.

What Are the Side Effects of Sulfites in Wine?

Most people can and do consumer truckloads of sulfites with absolutely no side effects whatsoever. However, the unfortunate few may experience hives, swelling, stomach pain, diarrhea, and even anaphylaxis (in rare cases) after consuming sulfites. For people with severe asthma, sulfites can also trigger irritation to the respiratory tract. 

While some people might claim they suffer from wine-induced headaches because of sulfites, it’s important to remember the other ingredients one typically finds in vino. These include alcohol, histamine, tyramine, and flavonoids, all known to produce the head-pounding pain you sometimes experience after a glass or two too many.

If you’re thinking of limiting your sulfite intake, start by reading the labels on all food products. If you see ingredients such as sodium sulfite, sodium bisulfite, sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, and potassium metabisulfite, you’ll know sulfite was added as a preservative.

When it comes to wine, red wine typically contains fewer sulfites than white wine or dessert wines. Additionally, some winemakers now make low-intervention wines. These tend to be more natural and devoid of chemicals, including sulfites. 

Final Thoughts

Now that you know that sulfites are not the nasty thing they’re rumored to be, you can enjoy that lovely glass of 1982 Lafite Rotschild or even that $10 bottle of pinot noir. Whatever your taste or budget, saluti!