Sulfites in Wine: The Facts

Get the facts on sulfites in wine. How much is in your wine and what does it mean for you?

What are sulfites?

Sulfites in wine are chemical compounds (sulphur dioxide, or SO2) that occur naturally, to varying degree, in all types of wine.Sulfur Dioxide is naturally found in wines and is a byproduct of fermentation, but most winemakers choose to add a little extra to prevent the growth of undesirable yeasts and microbes, as well as to protect against oxidation.Ancient cultures in Greece, Rome, and Egypt, used sulfites to sterilise their containers of wine. Because sulfites are anti-microbial, it has the ability of killing off unwanted bacterias and wild yeast during wine making.Wine sulfites are highest in sweet, white wines, and lowest in dry, red wines.

Are sulfites harmful?

Ever since Australian Legislation has required wine labels to disclose “Contains Sulfites” consumers have become increasingly alarmed and worried as to whether sulfites are dangerous to one’s health.The truth of the matter is that there is little reason to worry. Sulfites are naturally occurring elements in all wines, generated in amounts between 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm), they are not chemical additives, and they are present in many other foods as well.The biggest health risk involving sulfites would be allergic reaction. While it’s listed as a food allergen, a true allergic reaction in the form of anaphalaxis is in fact a very rare phenomenon.A general fear in sulfites would be as unnecessary as a general fear of shrimp scampi, peanut butter sandwiches, or omelettes. Actually, shellfish, peanuts, and eggs are of the six most common food allergens, whereas a true sulfite allergy is way, way far down, if not negligible, on that list.

How much sulfites are in wine?

Australian Food standards allow for a maximum of 250ppm in dry wine, and up to 300ppm for sweet wines. For the purpose of comparison, dried apricots are usually contain more than 2,000ppm and are allowed up to 3,000ppm. There is less sulphur dioxide used in organic and biodynamic wines. Certification allows 50 per cent of what can be used under conventional standards. There tends to be higher levels of sulphur dioxide added to white wines as they are more susceptible to oxidation, whereas the tannins in red wines act as a natural preservative.

Myths about sulfites in wine

People may believe that sulfites in wine cause headaches…which through research has been proven a false assumption. There has been no correlation between sulfites and headaches.A more common scenario with wine sulfites is a more typical, mild food sensitivity, which can create symptoms in the form of coughing, wheezing, and/or rashes.All that being said, bear in mind that sulfites are used as a natural preservative in many, many types food products, from dried fruits to frozen shrimp, and that because its a naturally occurring chemical compound, even organic wines cannot avoid containing sulfites. Even our bodies naturally produce sulfites!

This is an edited version of a story that was published by McWilliam's Wines in 2018. 

Posted 25 January 2021


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