“Do you have any wines without sulfites?”
As a sommelier, I hear this question from time to time, and it illustrates how much confusion and misinformation is out there. I’ve overheard people explaining to their dining companions that wines from Europe don’t have sulfites, or that American wines contain sulfites that cause headaches.
Well, here’s the real scoop.
Sulfites are sulfur-based compounds that occur naturally or can be synthesized in a laboratory. Sulfites are often added to food, beverages or medications as preservatives. In the case of fermented beverages—which include wine and beer–the yeasts used in the fermentation process naturally produce some sulfur compounds, including sulfites; therefore, all wines and beers contain some sulfites.
Most wine producers add another sulfur compound, sulfur dioxide, to preserve color and flavor. The amount of sulfur compounds present in a typical bottle of wine is about 80mg per liter, or about 10mg per glass. If the wine is labeled as “certified organic” in the U.S., then no additional sulfur-based chemicals (beyond those naturally derived from fermentation) can be added.
The FDA estimates that one of every 100 people is sensitive to sulfur compounds, which often manifests itself as asthmatic symptoms or hives.
There is no medical evidence that sulfites in red wines cause headaches. In fact, white wines usually have higher levels than reds!
Wines, foods and medications in the U.S. that contain any sulfites must be labeled “contains sulfites” by law. Wines that you consume while traveling in France or Italy contain the same compounds in the same amounts (just as they have for hundreds of years). The only difference is that the European Union doesn’t require a warning label.
Sulfites are not harmful or dangerous except to those with a severe allergy to them.
If you think you’re allergic to sulfites, try this: Eat three ounces of dried apricots. That amount contains about 175mg of sulfur dioxide, which is added to prevent oxidation. Remember, an entire liter of wine contains about 80mg. If you don’t have an asthma attack or break out in hives, it’s not the sulfites.
Oh, and if the apricots don’t give you a headache, then stop blaming the sulfites in the wine.
Green is certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers as a Sommelier. She is a member of the wine and spirits team at Pappas Bros. Steakhouse in Dallas and writes about wine and spirits for EscapeHatchDallas.com.