What’s Really Up With Wine Sulfites? Fact or Fiction?

As a vintner and owner of a Winery I have a lot of conversations about wine. One of the most common topics that come up is sulfites. “Sulfites give me headaches”, “Sulfites make me sick the next day,” “I’m allergic to sulfites…” and on it goes. I’d like to bring some clarity around this topic. The history, the myths and the facts so that we can all get back to what is important – enjoying wine!

A little bit of history…it was actually the Ancient Greeks who discovered sulfites, or rather, sulphur from volcanic vents which appeared to kill pests put didn’t affect food sources; it actually preserved them…the first form of food preservation! They quickly used the sulphur to fumigate ships and tried it in their wine to preserve it however, adding sulphur straight up to wine caused it to produce H2S gas (that really nasty rotten egg smell)! So, they continued with the experiments and discovered that burning sulphur with rosemary and using the smoke to fill the air space in the wine containers actually worked in preserving the wine for long periods of transport. Thank goodness for modern technology though! In the early 1900’s wine making technology began to evolve, liquifying and dissolving sulphur dioxide and turning it into the modern sulfites used today in wine making.

Let’s explore some common myths about sulfites.

Myth #1: Sulfites cause headaches. Nope. There is no actual scientific proof this occurs. So, what’s causing the headache? In some rare cases, the tannins in a wine can cause headaches. To test this, steep black tea for 5 minutes longer than normal before consuming it. Black tea has tons of tannins…so if you get a headache then it’s the tannins that are the culprit. But as I said, this rare. Second most likely source – sugar. Those super sweet wines…the sugar hasn’t been fermented out and remains behind to cause a headache. But most likely a “wine” headache is from too much alcohol and not enough water. Hydrate – one for one and drink in moderation and you should be good to go!

Myth #2: Red Wine contains more sulfites than white. Nope. In most cases, white wine has more sulfite than red. This is because of malolactic fermentation – a process common in red wine making where double fermentation occurs that reduces radical yeast in the wine, thus eating up the sugar and reducing the need for more sulfites.

Myth #3: Sulfites are straight up additives in wine. Again, nope. Sulfites occur naturally from the yeast metabolism during fermentation. Wineries add more to protect the wine and stop any radical yeast from continuing to ferment which would contaminate the wine. Therefore, there are typically more sulfites in white wine as they tend to be sweeter in design.

Now, how about some fun facts about sulfites!

Fun Fact #1: Most table grapes and many other fruits are fumigated with sulfites prior to being sold…to protect them from decay.

Fun Fact #2: Sulfites are a quite common food preservative used in the US food industry.

Fun Fact #3: Sulfites protect against oxidization in the wine. Ever open a bottle, not finish it then go back in a couple days and it tastes bad? It would spoil much quicker without the use of sulfites!

Fun Fact #4: Wine contains about 10 times less sulfites than dried fruit, pickles, soy sauce and fruit juices!

Fun Fact about Waters Edge Winery! All wine produced at Waters Edge contains much less sulfites than commercial wines because we handle the wine from start to finish. There are no unknowns about what is happening with the wine from production to consumption by you! We control temperature, light, and sanitization 100%. Large commercial wineries need to worry about transport all over the globe without any control of the conditions so there is a greater need for higher preservatives such as sulfites to protect the wine. Just one more reason to shop local!

Now that you’ve got the facts about sulfites – go ahead and enjoy!

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