Sulphites in Wine – What does this mean?
8th September 2022
As I browse my wine collection and check the labels I see a common theme being the mention, usually translated into English on those which are foreign, of the word sulphites. From German to French, Canadian to English and from still to bubbles, we see the word sulphites on the bottle. Usually clearly marked and many times alongside the health warnings such as not to drink when pregnant or avoid drinking and driving.
So what exactly does sulphites mean and why are we being told that a bottle of wine contains some? Sulphites are another term for sulfur dioxide (SO2) which is a natural product created during the fermentation process when making of wine. Legally, wine producers are obliged to mention that sulphites make up one of the ingredients.
What do sulphites look like? You will not see them in your bottle / glass of wine though if they were in a greater mass they would appear as a crystal substance just like tartrates you might find on corks.
Are sulphites dangerous? Not to most people as only 1% of the global population will be in anyway allergic to sulphites. The amount per bottle is likely to be under 10 mg/L (parts per million) to about 200 mg/L. There are some exceptions and reading up on wines from the USA shows a maximum allowance of 350 mg/L.
“… sulfites can cause trouble for people with sensitivities and allergies to the chemicals, which aren’t all that uncommon. “Sulfites are one of the top 10 allergens in the United States,” Keatley says.” source womenshealthmag
Caroline Gilby MW writes: “However, since 2005 it has been a legal requirement to declare sulphites on the label if the level is over 10 mg/l (even if of natural origin – a small amount is always produced during fermentation).” source thewinesociety
Which wines contain more sulphites? White wines are more likely to have more sulphites over red wines. Those which are lower in acidity or higher in sugar levels will also have usually a larger volume of sulphites within.
Do sulphites give you a hangover? Many stories and online articles tell us that sulphites can increase those next day hangovers / headaches which these days are usually dismissed as mis-information. The best way to remedy a hangover is to not drink so much the night before or to make sure you drink plenty of water. Arriving home after a heavy night out? Drink a couple of glasses of water prior to falling asleep and keep one beside your bed – You will thank me for the advice, I promise!
Can you buy wines without sulphites? You can find sulphite free wines, mostly under the subject line of natural / biodynamic / organic wines. Importantly though, and legally speaking, under both USA and EU law, sulphite free wine is defined as a wine containing no more than 10 parts per million Total SO2 and 5 parts per million Free SO2.
“Sulphites are naturally occurring minerals that have a long history of use in foods. They naturally occur in some foods but are widely used as a food additive to prevent microbial spoilage and preserve colour.” source foodstandards Australia
Co-founder of Glass of Bubbly. Journalist and author focused on Champagne & Sparkling Wines and pairing them with foods.