Nearly 3,000 years ago, winemakers in Ancient Greece made a fascinating discovery[*]. If they took gypsum -- a chalky white mineral rich in sulfur -- and mixed it with their wine before fermentation, the wine would keep for years without spoiling.
Those growers didn’t know it at the time, but their discovery started one of winemaking’s most enduring practices: preserving wine with sulfites.
Today, sulfites are almost universal in the winemaking world. Some sulfites occur naturally, while others are added to wine as a powder. Either way, if you turn to the back label of virtually any wine bottle, you’ll see the same two words: “contains sulfites.”
Those two words often give people pause. Are sulfites in wine bad for you? Do they cause headaches or health problems? And if sulfites are okay, why are they listed on the label?
This article will explore what sulfites do to wine, the health effects of sulfites, why the vast majority of wine labels have to post “contains sulfites,” and whether or not you should look for sulfite-free wine.
What Are Sulfites?
“Sulfite” is another word for sulfur dioxide, a powerful antioxidant and antibacterial that helps keep wine fresh. Sulfites kill bacteria that make wine go bad. Some winemakers also use higher-dose added sulfites to kill yeasts, stopping fermentation early.
Wine is fragile while it’s fermenting, and it’s easy for young wines to spoil. Without sulfites (either naturally occurring or added), most wine wouldn’t last much longer than six months. With sulfites, wine keeps almost indefinitely. Sulfites also prevent browning in wine by reacting with oxygen in the sealed bottle of wine.
Virtually every wine in the world contains sulfites. Sulfur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation, so even wines with no added sulfites (like many organic and biodynamic wines) still have sulfites in them, as well as the requisite “contains sulfites” label.
Are sulfites bad for you?
Sulfites often take the blame for causing wine hangovers. However, they haven’t been shown to trigger headaches or any other health issues for 99% of people.
About 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites[*]. If you’re in that 1%, you may get headaches, digestive issues, rashes, and even heart problems after consuming sulfites. That said, sulfites are in a lot of common foods, often in much greater quantities than the sulfites in wine. If you have a sulfite sensitivity, you’d react to a variety of foods, including[*]:
Jams and jellies
If you can eat the above foods, you probably don’t have a sulfite sensitivity. But if sulfites are harmless, why do wine bottles have to have “contains sulfites” on their labels?
Sulfite labeling is for that 1% of the population with a sulfite sensitivity. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) discovered sulfite sensitivity in the 1980s, and began requiring a “contains sulfites” label in 1988[*], to keep those few people safe.
What do high sulfite levels in wine mean?
Sulfite levels vary from wine to wine. Wines in the United States are allowed to contain up to 350 parts per million (ppm) sulfites, but any wine with more than 10 ppm requires labeling.
Generally, white wines contain more sulfites than red wines do. Red wines get their color from extended contact with grape skins during fermentation. Grape skins contain tannins, polyphenols, and a variety of other antioxidants that keep wine from spoiling, and as a result, red wines typically don’t need as many added sulfites to stay fresh.
White wines have no skin contact during fermentation. As a result, they contain fewer natural antioxidants during early fermentation, leaving them more prone to spoilage. Many winemakers add extra sulfites to white wines to keep them from going bad as they ferment.
Sulfites are generally safe, and if you have a reaction to wine, it’s more likely because of other things: high alcohol content, high residual sugar content, histamines, or possibly a combination of unlabeled wine additives. However, that doesn’t mean you should drink high-sulfite wines.
If Sulfites Are Safe, Why Avoid Them?
From a health perspective, sulfites are fine for most people. But from a winemaking perspective, sulfites matter a great deal.
Isabelle Legeron is one of the 369 people who hold a Master of Wine, the highest winemaking qualification in the world. Isabelle founded the Natural Wine movement, and at the top of her criteria for Natural Wine is that a wine must be low in sulfites. To her, low-sulfite wine is non-negotiable. It’s a necessity.
Isabelle is not alone. We work with hundreds of Natural Winemakers across the world, and every single one of them insists on producing low-sulfite wine. When we visit their vineyards, we hear the same thing over and over: high sulfites ruin wine.
Sulfites are strong sterilizers. They kill off bacteria and yeasts, which makes winemaking considerably easier. But in the sterilization process, sulfites also rob wine of its life. They leave it flat and predictable.
It takes exceptional skill to make wine with low sulfites. Winemakers must balance their wine perfectly, which requires a level of patience and understanding (and love) that many commercial wine companies lack.
In the end, though, the difference is extraordinary. Natural Wines have an authenticity of taste that most modern wines have lost. They’re complex, unusual, surprising, joyful. They leap out of the glass with a vivacity that’s far too rare in today’s winemaking world. When you drink Natural Wine, you can taste its origin, its terroir, and all the subtleties that make it unique. That’s only possible in low-sulfite wines.
Sulfites in Natural Wine
For the winemakers we work with, Natural Wine is art. Each glass is an expression of the intricate dance between the winemaker’s skill and Nature’s wisdom. Sulfites stamp out those intricacies during sterilization, leaving wine flat and dull.
Sulfites may not be a big health concern, but they matter a great deal when it comes to quality. At Dry Farm Wines, we follow Isabelle Legeron’s criteria for sulfites in wine. We lab-test all our wines to make sure they contain fewer than 75 ppm sulfites, and the majority of our wines are considerably lower than that. That cutoff ensures that all the wines we offer are pure expressions of Nature, and that they were made with extraordinary care by the best winemakers in the world.
And while sulfites don’t usually make you feel bad, plenty of other things in wine do. If you’ve been avoiding commercial wine, we invite you to try Dry Farm Wines. All our wines are grown with either organic or biodynamic practices, free of industrial additives, and lab-tested to be statistically sugar-free and lower in alcohol. They’re the purest Natural Wines on the planet and perfect for someone who watches what goes in their body. You may be surprised at how different the drinking experience is.