Oh, the sulfite drama. It seems like whether you're an old-school wine drinker, a natural wine hipster, an anti-red winer, or anything remotely in between, you have an opinion about sulfites in wine. I get it. There's a lot of information thrown around about sulfites. If they're added, if they're bad, if they'll cause your allergies to flare up. Let's break it down.
What Are Sulfites, and Why Are They in Wine?
Sulfites = sulfur dioxide or SO2. Sulfites are naturally occurring in grapes, but they can also be added during the winemaking process. This is part of the big misunderstanding about sulfites in wine. They are there no matter what. So, the next time your server sells you on "sulfite-free" wine, you can safely assume they don't know what they're talking about. Now, are there added sulfites? That's another story.
Natural Sulfites vs. Added Sulfites
With wine, sulfur dioxide can come in two forms: naturally occurring and/or added. Natural sulfites are a byproduct of fermentation. In this form, they're in your wine in small amounts and are undetectable. So, do they have a purpose? Yes. Sulfites act as a preservative for wine, but with natural sulfites, they never amount to quite enough to extend the shelf life for big years. Enter added sulfites. Sometimes adding an extra pinch of sulfites at bottling is what that Italian wine needs to help ensure it arrives to you unoxidated and tasting like it should. The natural anti-microbial properties of sulfur can be hugely beneficial for keeping a wine shelf stable during transportation and bottle aging.
Are Added Sulfites in Wine Bad?
Of all the many chemicals that can be added to wine and not appear on the label, it's funny that sulfites is the one that's required. The "contains sulfites" warning is on nearly every wine label you'll come across. Sulfites are measured in parts per million or PPM, and if a wine that's distributed in the U.S. contains over 10 PPM, it's required to have the "contains sulfites" notation on the label. The thing is that sulfites, even in the 100s ppm, aren't a health risk for most people. While an average wine has about 80 PPM, the ends of the extreme are a "zero-zero" natural wine with 0 PPM or a highly infused wine with upwards of 350 PPM, which is the legal limit in the United States. Meanwhile, dried fruit contains 500-2,500 PPM. Whether you're drinking wine or eating dried apricots, it's unlikely that you'll have any negative side effects from sulfites.
Most Likely, You're Not Allergic to the Sulfites in Your Wine
While the majority of people don't have a sulfite sensitivity, 3-10% of asthmatics can experience symptoms from sulfites. This allergic reaction can vary in severity with the following symptoms: hives, trouble breathing, difficulty swallowing, and dizziness. In this case, you'll want to avoid wine (and all other food and beverages that contain sulfites). If you're not an asthmatic with a sulfite sensitivity and are now left wondering why you are getting those red wine headaches, several other things in wine could cause them.
Heady tannins, an excess of residual sugar, or histamines can also cause adverse reactions for some. Because tannins are in the grape skins, red wines contain substantial amounts compared to white wines, which are directly pressed and separated from their skins. With histamines, everyone has them, though some people struggle to break them down. Alcohol also inhibits the breakdown, so sometimes this buildup can trigger a headache. And then there is, of course, the possibility that you've simply had too much wine and not enough water over the course of an evening, in which case, both the overindulgence and dehydration can cause a headache.
Minimal Sulfite Wines
While there aren't sulfite-free wines, there are plenty of wines that don't contain added sulfites or, if they do, they're very minimal (between 5-20 PPM). If you want to search these wines out, look at natural wine. The minimal intervention concept of natural wines doesn't add or take anything away from the wine.