Just like most people I too have been confused by the sulfite issue lately. It seems like it’s a hot topic, and it’s hard to get a completely straight answer without becoming a wine expert and reading tons of literature on it.
While on our wine tour in Tuscany last October, I asked our guide to break down the myth of sulfites for us (the group) because the biggest claim I hear made today is that American and Australian wines have tons of sulfites while European wines have less which is why they seemingly cause less headaches. Some people think this is a myth while others swear by it. So I am here to share with you what she taught us. What she shared has been echoed through numerous articles and books so I know she speaks TRUTH. 🙂
So here’s the real dealio: All wines contain sulfites. Period. While the levels may vary, sulfites (AKA Sulfur dioxide) is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. To say on a wine label that a wine contains sulfites is the equivalent of saying that the wine was made using grapes. Apparently it’s that cut and dry.
The confusion comes into play when people try to decipher HOW MUCH is in a wine. Most wineries add additional sulfites to wines because it is a preservative and an anti-microbial that keeps the wine from growing bacteria while it ferments. This is actually a good thing, not a bad thing. It’s also a practice that has been into play since Roman times. If wines didn’t contain sulfites they would turn to vinegar. Ewwww.
The heightened concern about sulfites has really been more of an issue as of late because there seems to be a rising level of sulfur dioxide globally among many different foods. Frozen juices, sodas and dried fruits actually contain more sulfites than wine does. This is especially a concern for people who have sulfite sensitivities/allergies (which is most prevalent among asthma sufferers) which can include but are not limited to headaches and swelling. Otherwise, most of us are not sulfite sensitive and even if we were, we should be taking a closer look at the pre-packaged foods we’re eating instead of wine because wine is actually the least of the problem.
Different Sulfite Levels in Wines
Wines naturally contain a level of around 10-40ppm of sulfites which includes organic wines. So if you’re extra sensitive to sulfites, make no mistake that even organic wines contain sulfites too albeit at a very minimal level (less than 20ppm). You can find wines of this level by looking at the label which should say “No Added Sulfites.” This means that the winery didn’t add anything over and beyond what was naturally created during fermenting.
(Sidenote: some wines try to claim to be “sulfite-free” which is highly debated in the wine world because it is supposedly impossible.)
As for the rest, I can’t exactly list how many ppm is in each wine because it varies so much and can go up to 350ppm, but you can use this basic rule of thumb if you have sulfite concerns:
• Dry Reds: Dry red wines contain the least amount of sulfites.
• Dry white wines: The clearer the wine, the more sulfites so white wines contain more sulfites than reds.
• Dessert wines or sweet wines: Contain the MOST sulfites because the sulfur dioxide is needed to prevent secondary fermentation of the extra sugar.
American/Australian vs. European Sulfite Levels
Technically, sulfite levels are standard and no particular region adds any more or less than anyone else. So the myth of European wines containing less sulfites is simply that, a myth. Having said that, this doesn’t mean that certain wines have less sulfites than others. That is still true. It just means that these levels can’t be generalized by an entire country or wine region.
Other causes of wine headaches
While some people seem to get red wine headaches easily, sulfites can’t always be attributed to that. If you can drink white wine and not get headaches, then it’s not a sulfite issue because white wines contain more sulfites than reds. As a matter of fact, dried apricots contain nearly 10x more sulfites than wine so eating these might be a good litmus test to see if you are truly allergic to sulfites.
But (and here’s a giant BUT) if you’re like me and you KNOW you get massive headaches from American wines as opposed to French or Italian wines – take a look at the alcohol levels. What most people don’t realize is that European wines as a whole have less alcohol. While us Americans (especially Californians) have gotten use to 14%-15% alcohol in red wine, most European red wines actually only contain 13%-13.5% (their whites many times are as low at 11%). That might not seem like a lot but for people like me, it’s everything. I have discovered that this is actually the true culprit to my red wine headaches. Now, I can make more informed decisions when I purchase CA wine because the first thing I look at is the alcohol %.
Also, another thing to keep in mind is that red wines contain tannins and white white wines do not. If you have an exceptionally hard time with reds over whites, you might be sensitive to tannins.
So I hope that has cleared a few things up! It certainly did for me! I want to thank Ilaria Miele from Tuscan Wine Tours for her AMAZING information. If you’re ever in Tuscany and want to be chauffeured around for a day and taste wine, give them a shout out. They ROCK!