The Common Myth of Sulfites In Wine

The Common Myth of Sulfites In Wine

Here’s a shocking fact, sulfites are a common natural chemical found in all wines! Nearly 3,000 years ago, winemakers in Ancient Greece made a fascinating discovery. If they took gypsum; a chalky white mineral rich in sulfur and mixed it with their wine before fermentation, the wine would keep for years without spoiling. Those growers didn’t know it at the time, but their discovery started one of winemaking’s most enduring practices: preserving wine with sulfites. 

Today, sulfites are almost universal in the winemaking world. Some sulfites occur naturally, while others are added to wine as a powder. Either way, if you turn to the back label of virtually any wine bottle, you’ll see the same two words: “contains sulfites.” But sulfites are not bad any more than gluten is bad. Some people are just allergic.

In fact, they perform an essential function. Sulfites prevent bacteriological spoilage, kill active yeast and prevent rot and oxidation. Indeed, they are useful and necessary as they maintain flavor and freshness of the wine. Interestingly, white wine contains as much if not sometimes more sulfites than red wine because producers tend to add more sulfites to white wine for preservation because tannins in red wine act as preservatives. However, much to every winemaker’s dismay, there is a pervasive misconception that sulfites affect red wine drinkers by causing headaches.

Now to be fair, as with all myths, it originates somewhere. An estimated 1% of people actually have sulfite sensitivity. According to Cleveland Clinic, if you’re not asthmatic, sulfite sensitivity would be very unusual. If you do have asthma, your chances of being sensitive to sulfites is in the range of between 1 in 40 and 1 in 100. Sulfites can be a cause of asthma and allergy symptoms that can range from mild wheezing to potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. In fact, wine is not the only food or beverage that contains sulfites. Dried fruit, charcuterie, beer, soft drinks, eggs, jams, sausages, potato chips, and many medications contain added sulfites just to name a few. Wine actually contains about ten times less sulfites than most dried fruits. So, if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have an evident reaction, you are probably not allergic to sulfites.

As for the rest of us, we don’t feel too great after drinking wine because we either had a bit too much to drink and/or did not hydrate enough throughout. Don’t forget to hydrate!! Overindulgence aside, wine headaches can also occur due to various different components of wine including other additives, tannins and histamines. Many purists do not like sulfites in wine simply because they believe that they are an unnatural additive. While sulfites may be added to wine, they are in fact a natural product of fermentation.  Therefore, even if no sulfites are added, your wine will almost always contain some sulfites.  So if you are a wine lover, sulfites are your friends, not your nemesis. But if you want to ensure that you are consuming an unadulterated wine, high-quality organic wine producers will be a safe bet!