Geek Out with Rachael – Myths on Sulfites

Aeration Oxidation Apparatus

  • “Red wine has more sulfites than whites”…
  • “I’m allergic to the sulfites in red wine”…
  • “I can only drink white wines, sparklings, roses or desert wines because of the sulfites”…
  • “Organic wines have no sulfites”…

Several conversations in the wine aisle at the grocery store and comments made by my own tasting room guests has prompted me to discuss sulfites. There are few topics about wine more confusing than sulfites, nor more misunderstood. Sulfur is a naturally occurring bi-product of a yeast’s metabolic cycle, especially under stress. Sulfur exists in wine, without additions. Wine makers use sulfur in many applications, but primarily to prevent spoilage organisms from living in it, and to prevent oxidation in combination with other measures.


Myth #1 – “Red wine has more sulfites than whites”… WRONG!

Here are some basic facts; good wine making requires that white wines have more added sulfites that reds. In order to prevent spoilage and oxidation in whites, wine makers attempt to keep whites in the .8 Molecular free SO2 range, while reds are typically in the .5 Molecular free SO2 range. Wines with sensitive color, like Roses, are even higher. Sweet wines and sparklings are higher still. However, it is possible for reds to have more added sulfites, especially in reds with troubling pH’s, nearing 4.0! Sulfites are pH sensitive; the higher the pH, the more free SO2 is necessary to prevent spoilage.


Myth 2 – “I can only drink white wines, sparklings, roses or desert wines because of the sulfites”…Perhaps!

The idea that a person cannot drink red wines due to sulfites is common, but most likely incorrect. There are a variety of reasons that a person may react to red wines. These may include a reaction to alcohol, oak, biogenic amines, tannins, and possibly sulfites. However, Less than one percent of the population is actually allergic to sulfites, and the symptoms are NOT the headache and red face complaints typically espoused as a red-wine-sulfite reaction.


Myth 3 – “Organic wines have no sulfites”…WRONG!

All wines have trace sulfites. Organic wines are required to have less than 100 ppm of sulfites, while regular wine labeling laws require less than 350 ppm. Many organic wines tout “no added sulfites”, which is in keeping with organic wine making practices, although many nonorganic wines have less than 100 ppm sulfites in them with good winemaking skills, accurate lab testing and clean bottling practices. The caveat for purchasing organic wines is often evident in wine longevity. Unless the winemaking process is meticulously clean, and wines are sterile filtered, organic wines have a shorter cellar life due to the inevitable spoilage of wine dwelling creatures.

To sum up this discussion on sulfites, I would be remiss to not give my opinion of sulfur additions in wine…THUMBS WAY UP!!!! Sulfites are harmless, naturally occurring compounds that contribute profoundly to great winemaking if used correctly. In lieu of poisons, sulfur is an innocuous addition to vineyards to prevent molds and fungus, in wines to prevent microbial blooms and in sanitation to keep equipment microbe free. The caveat for using sulfites in wine is in good winemaking practices. Appropriate lab practices such as aeration oxidation tests performed on a regular bases prevent adding too much sulfur to wines, or too little. In sanitation, sulfur needs to be rinsed free from equipment, as it is corrosive. And in vineyards, the application of sulfur powders and oils needs to be timed according to vineyard needs (as opposed to a “spray schedule”) and weather conditions as well as harvest parameters. Mindful winemaking makes the use of sulfur safe and beneficial for wine consumption.