Sulfites, or Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) have become something of a villain in the wine world these days. They are commonly considered to be to blame for the headaches that some people get with wine and it’s become popular to try either removing them from wine with special aerators or in the case of some vintners, fermenting wine without adding any sulfites at all. How much of this anti-sulfite sentiment is actually valid and how much of it is people seeing a chemical sounding name on their wine label and instinctively recoiling? We don’t want sulfates in our shampoo, so we mustn’t want sulfites in our wine, right?
Photo Credit: Wine Folly
Humans have been using sulfites in wine since the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans. Sulfur Dioxide has anti-microbial properties that kill off unwanted bacteria and yeast. Many winemakers add it to the wine at various stages to act as a preservative, halt fermentation, and control taste. However even without vintner intervention, sulfites occur naturally in wine, so even organic or natural wines can never be completely sulfite free. The FDA requires any wine with over 10 parts per million of sulfites to have “contains sulfites” on the label. A wine can very easily exceed that limit during a strictly additive free fermentation. Even with added sulfites, wines only have between 20 and 200 ppm of sulfites, which is a significantly lower amount than found in things like dried fruit (300-500 ppm) and naturally occuring in the human body.
Photo Credit: Healthline.com
Typically a sweet white wine will have the highest level of sulfites and a dry red will have the lowest. This comes as a surprise to many as people often blame their red wine headaches on the presence of sulfites. Medical research has proved that there is no actual connection between sulfites and headaches. In most cases either a sensitivity to tannins or compounds found in both aged wines and aged meats which release the body’s histamines, are actually to blame for these headaches. It is possible to be allergic to sulfites, and a small portion of the population is. However, because of the sulfites found in many foods, any person with a sulfite allergy is most likely to have been made aware of this allergy long before they reached wine drinking age.
Vintners who attempt to make wine without added sulfites do so for the same reason they make their wine without any other additives. They believe that keeping the ingredients in a wine strictly to the grapes and natural yeast brought in from the vineyard, provide the best possible expression of terroir in the resulting wine. This is, of course, not without its challenges. Less sulfites means less anti-microbial and bacterial protection in the wine ,so vintners must be fastidious about cleanliness in order to try to keep as much unwanted bacteria and oxygen out of their wine as possible. There is also the gamey “funk” taste that you get with completely natural wines. Some people adore it and some people can’t stand it. Brettanomyces and Mousiness, (bacterial wine flaws that are acceptable in small amounts but can ruin a bottle in too high a concentration) are particularly difficult problems for the natural “No SO” winemaker. Because of the finicky nature of the sulfite-free wine, it tends to be primarily the domain of small batch specialty wineries who have the time and training in additive-free winemaking methods. These wines are amazing when everything goes well in the fermentation process and well worth seeking out. Just don’t let an unfounded fear of sulfites keep you from drinking what you love either.