Sulfites in Wine

“Contains sulfites” is a fairly off-putting statement on a bottle of wine that you hope to enjoy with a meal, gift to a friend, or share with a loved one. Um, you mean, there’s chemicals in here? So, are they bad for me—is that why wine sometimes gives me headaches? And can wine be made without these sulfites?

First of all, it’s important to point out that what’s on the label is simply letting you know that naturally occurring sulfites are found, in every single bottle of wine. This is a separate matter from the question of added sulfur, which is actually more relevant in terms of how a wine tastes and how it makes you feel. But we’ll get to that.

Firstly, what are sulfites? The term refers generally to sulfur dioxide (SO2). The reason all wine labels in the U.S. contain this ominous warning is that SO2 is a natural byproduct of fermentation—therefore, virtually all wine contains it. Where it gets tricky (and potentially interesting, if you like to nerd out on wine, which you must because why else would you be reading this?) is the question of added sulfur as a winemaking technique.

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Sulfur has been added to wine for a long time; the naturalist philosopher Pliny even wrote about first-century Roman winemakers using the pungent, “pale, yellow, brittle” substance, according to Jancis Robinson’s authoritative Oxford Companion to Wine. Essentially, sulfur ensures the stability of wine by killing off active yeast and bacteria, and protecting wine from oxygen, which can transform it in numerous ways. Adding sulfur is helpful in numerous scenarios: when you’ve just harvested a bunch of grapes and it’s really hot and you don’t want them to ferment, for example; another common reason is that much wine is exported, and sulfur prevents it from re-fermenting during shipment.

But the thing about sulfur is that it can prevent wine from showing its nuances. Sulfur-laden wine is predictable—which can be a good thing. But when you try low-sulfur wine, or sulfur-free wine, the juice is surprisingly alive. There is something special about wine made with less sulfur; wine writer Alice Feiring once told me that drinking a sulfur-free bottle means the last glass will be more interesting than the first, because the wine changes once you’ve opened it and let it sit out. That’s kind of cool, isn’t it? That a wine can express itself in a multifaceted way, instead of just tasting the same all the way through.

The thing sulfur won’t do however is make you sick as the alleged sulfite allergy, which many people cite as the cause of post-wine headaches or other bad responses, would lead you to believe. Studies show that very, very few people (about 1 in 100) have allergic reactions to sulfites in wine. And there’s no real scientific connection between sulfites and headaches (that said, a lot of sans-soufre proponents swear that the lower levels of sulfur equate to fewer headaches, which may be true at least in my experience). Generally, though, it’s more likely that it’s the tannins, the high alcohol content, or some additive that the winemaker used to flavor the wine, which could be causing headaches. To avoid headaches, try drinking water alongside your wine, look for lower ABV juice (11-13 percent), and stay away from mass produced wine that’s guaranteed to have as many chemicals added as a cheap soda would.

So, what’s “low-sulfur,” exactly? This depends on where a wine is from. But here’s a general idea: conventionally made wine in the U.S. will contain up to 350 ppm (that’s parts per million). Any domestic wine that’s certified, USDA organic will have no sulfur added to it. (This is not the same thing as “wine made with organic grapes”—which means it is, in fact, allowed to be made with sulfur.) And even if they aren’t certified, organically farmed grapes are typically vinified with less sulfur—because healthier vineyards actually need less sulfur, the same way that a strong, fit human needs less medicine.

In Europe, most* certified organic wine allows up to 100 ppm of sulfur for reds and 150 ppm for whites and rosés, while the limits on the conventional versions of those wines are 150ppm and 200pppm respectively. The biodynamic Demeter certification also has limitations on how much sulfur can be used, slightly lower than organic certification. In France, winemakers often write sans-soufre on a bottle when they have not added sulfur—they may choose to do this regardless of having any certification, simply because the vintage conditions were right for omitting sulfur, or because it’s an experiment. In Italy, it’s senza solfiti.

No-sulfur wine is a fun experiment to try. Occasionally, you might end up with a seriously funky wine, and perhaps not like it. But quite often, it’s virtually impossible to tell that there’s no sulfur added. Personally, I find that low-sulfur and zero-sulfur wines are fun, surprising, and unique. If there’s a funky smell at first, coming from all those lively bacteria and yeast, I usually find that it disappears after five minutes of the bottle being open.

Ready to try some sulfur-free or low-sulfur wines? Great. But just a warning, you might not find them at your supermarket. Since these tend to be quirky, small-production wines, a good retailer is your best bet.

Some to look for:

Jean Foillard “Morgon”: When you drink a low-sulfur wine from Jean Foillard, made from the light red grape Gamay, in the French region of Beaujolais, you’re tasting a bit of history. Foillard was one of the original “Gang of Four” winemakers—the others were Guy Breton, Marcel Lapierre, and Jean-Paul Thenevet—who began experimenting with no-sulfur and low-sulfur winemaking in the 1980s. Kermit Lynch caught onto this, and began importing their labels, helping to improve American’s access to great French wine. Foillard’s wines famously have an earthy, animal overtone. ($30)

Quantico, Etna Bianco / Etna Rosso: Fresh, lean and bright wines from the volcanic soils of Sicily; this is a great example of a no-sulfur wine that’s also reliably good. This label, a partnership between two friends, makes a red blend and a white blend, both without any added sulfur. ($24-30)

Bonny Doon, “A Proper Claret”: This is a wine we’ve reviewed before and love. Bonny Doon, located in California’s Central Coast region, is perhaps one of the most well known biodynamic wineries in the U.S., along with Robert Sinskey in Napa. Bonny Doon wines are widely available across the country, and they are usually affordable and delicious. A small amount of sulfur is added before bottling, which is a common practice to preserve the wine. ($15)

Jochen Beurer, Riesling: The one grape that you hear winemakers saying, again and again, requires some sulfur is Riesling. For some reason, the use of sulfur is considered part of the winemaking culture of the Rheingau, Rhinehessen, and the Mosel—the three main historical Riesling production zones. But one producer, Jochen Beurer, is making beautiful sulfur-free Rieslings in the south of Germany, in a region known as Swabia. The wines are bright, mineral and complex, like nothing you’ve tasted before. ($20)

Benjamin Taillandier, “Laguzelle”: In a small garage in the town of Minervois, Benjamin Taillandier makes excellent, delicious, vibrant no-sulfur wines. He’s doing a white blend with Grenache Gris and an indigenous variety called Terret, and a couple of reds that are a blend of Grenache, Cinsault, and Carignan—the traditional Languedoc grapes. This is very tasty, easy-going table wine that goes down light and fresh. ($17)

*The rules on sulfur in wine are incredibly complex, because every regulatory organization has different limitations, and it’s unnecessary to list all the different permitted amounts in this article, since it is introductory and not meant for winemakers or expert sommeliers. For more information on the regulations on sulfur use in wine, I recommend wine writers Britt and Per Karlsson’s book, Biodynamic, Organic, and Natural Winemaking: Sustainable Viticulture and Viniculture.