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Sulfites in Wine: Often Misunderstood Wine Component

Modern winemaking almost relies on the use of Sulphur dioxide (SO2) in strictly defined levels and occasions. Beside “Contains Sulfites”, wine could have many other additives that aren't required to be stated on the wine label. The sulfites do – which is maybe why they seem to be so misunderstood, causing wine drinkers a hard time deciding is it a good or a bad compound in wine.

Why is Sulphur dioxide used in winemaking?

It serves as an antioxidant and an antiseptic, preserving flavours and characteristics in wine for months and years until you reach for the bottle. Maximum level of usage is legally defined, and for the EU countries the level in wines must not exceed 150 mg/l for red and 200 mg/ l for white and rose wines.

Wines made with residual sugar, fall into different category where maximum Sulphur dioxide levels can be raised to 400 mg/l for some special styles of wine like Sauternes, Tokaji esencia and Beerenauslese among many others.  Of course, that doesn’t mean that you’ll find the maximum amounts in your wine.

Dried fruit can contain significantly higher sulfite levels than wine
Dried fruit can contain significantly higher sulfite levels than wine

Sulphur dioxide and other sulfites are often present in processed food, like dried fruits, seasonings, mustard and fruit juices, in some cases with 10 times higher maximum levels than in wine.

It is commonly used preservative but also a natural compound in wine, the by-product of fermentation. That is why even organic and natural wines also contain Sulphur dioxide, only on a smaller scale.

Are there any reactions to Sulphur dioxide in wines?

As a person that enjoys wines, you must think; what could be the side effect of this compound, so regulated that it needs to be clearly stated on the label (if the level is more than 10 mg/l).

There is a very low probability for “sulfite sensitivity” and allergic reactions that will in most cases, show first while consuming food like dried fruit and juices that have significantly higher levels of SO2 than your normal glass of dry red wine. Other compounds of wine, such as histamines and tannins, could encourage the immune reactions too.

Sulphur dioxide does not cause headache problems after wine consumption. In fact, red wines that are closely linked to migraines have lower levels of allowed Sulphur dioxide than the white and rose wines.  

The tendency today, in legislation and practice is going towards using less and less Sulphur dioxide in wines. High hygiene standards in the winery, temperature controlled processes in winemaking, and other activities that put contact to oxygen, bacteria and microbes to a minimum, help in decreasing sulfites. On the other hand, without the moderate usage of preservation agents, there is a greater risk of wine being inconsistent and unstable. What we could really look for at the wine label in the future, is the exact amount of sulfites used.

Enjoying your wine in a right way

If you aren’t experiencing any medical problems and intolerance to some components found in wines, don’t let the Sulphur myths scare you away from enjoying.

We could say alcohol in wine is a very enjoyable component, but in excessive consumption, it causes unwanted conditions and a lack of control.  Alcohol is responsible for dehydration and in order to prevent headaches and hangovers, when drinking your wine be sure to drink water all along.

Since wine is an alcoholic beverage, you should keep in mind that enjoying means being carefully about the volume. Croatian winemaker Andro Tomić for the Hvar based Tomić winery says, “that the wine should be drank on hours, not liters”. Experiencing wines has nothing to do with how many bottles you tried, but what you felt.

Food is a great companion to wine and generally it reduces the absorption of alcohol into the body, so enjoy your wine with food, or at least not on an empty stomach.

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