What Are Sulfites in Wine?

Have you ever wondered how some wines can age for years and preserve their freshness? While alcohol and tannins play a role in long-lasting wines like robust red wines, one more natural element allows wine to stay drinkable for longer. 

In this article, we’re discussing sulfites, what they are, and how they benefit wine. 

What are sulfites in wine?

Defining Sulfites

In short, sulfites, or sulfur dioxide, are naturally occurring chemical compounds that form during the fermentation process in winemaking. However, winemakers may sometimes add sulfites, like yeast, to speed up fermentation. 

Benefits of Sulfites

There are many benefits to sulfites being added to wine, including preventing the growth of unwanted bacteria, preserving wine color, promoting yeast growth, and protecting against oxidization, which causes wine to sour from rapid aging. Sulfites are more effective at preserving wine than other natural compounds, such as antioxidants and resveratrol.

Now that we’ve identified wine sulfites as part of the winemaking process, let’s address a few possible concerns some might have with the compound. 

Where do sulfites come from?

Are Sulfites Bad for You?

If you’re worried about ingesting sulfur, winemakers have been adding sulfur dioxide to wine for over two centuries. Many everyday foods we enjoy today contain sulfites, like dried fruit. Canned vegetables, soups, jams, and baked goods also have at least a small amount of sulfites. 

There is, however, a small percentage of the population that might experience sensitivity to sulfites.

Do Sulfites Cause Headaches?

Many have debated whether or not wine sulfites may cause headaches. The answer is that no one knows for sure. However, the headaches you experience from drinking wine may result from drinking alcohol too quickly on an empty stomach or consuming wines with heavy tannins like Cabernet Sauvignon. Tannins are the dry, astringent texture on your palate you experience after sipping robust red wines.

If you think you might be sensitive to alcohol or tannins, trade your heavier wine for lower-alcohol white wines and sparkling wines.

If you still prefer to sip sulfite-free wine, there’s a simple way to find out if your wine has them. 

Sulfites in red wine

How Do I Know if a Bottle of Wine Has Sulfites?

In the United States and Australia, it’s required by law that the amount of added sulfites in wine must be included on the wine label if they exceed a certain amount. In general, any wines that contain over 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites have this information, while anything under this amount can be kept off the label. 

In that case, there is little to no way of knowing if the wine you’re drinking has sulfites. However, there is another way to limit or eliminate your sulfite consumption when it comes to wine.

Is There Sulfite Free Wine?

While natural wine may contain smaller levels of sulfites than other store-bought varietals, organic wines have no added sulfites at all. The USDA National Organic Program prevents any sulfites from being added to organic wine and other organic foods and beverages. 

Remember that “organic” is different from “made from organic grapes.” The latter could still mean sulfites have been added during winemaking despite organic grapes being used. 

Going organic with wine is one of the fail-safe ways to ensure the wine you’re drinking comes without sulfur dioxide.  

Is there sulfite free wine?

The Verdict on Sulfites

Overall, don’t worry about drinking sulfites. Remember, they can actually help preserve your wine for much longer. They keep potentially harmful bacteria out of the bottle and work hard to preserve the wine’s visual and structural integrity. 

Sulfites in wine occur naturally, though winemakers may add sulfites to wine to further protect it. In this case, a wine level will tell you if the varietal you purchase has high amounts of sulfites.

If this is still too much, try an organic wine for sulfite-free sipping.

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