Words & Wine: Truth About Sulfites, Wine, & Headaches

By Émilie Steckenborn |

Over a recent dinner with fellow wine enthusiasts, a familiar refrain surfaced. “I find that I never get a hangover from organic wines. They don’t have sulfites. That’s why,” a colleague confidently stated from across the table.

I was shocked. This person—who had tasted so many great wines; travelled across legendary wine regions; and was generally well-informed—was still misled about sulfites. 

The time has come to breakdown the sulfite myth and expose the sad truth. Wine hangovers are not the product of sulfite; wine hangovers are more due to over-drinking.

But First, What Are Sulfites? 

Sulfur dioxide (SO2) is both a natural byproduct and an additive. The compound is used to prevent microbial and oxidative spoilage. Sulfites also act as an antioxidant, protecting wine from oxidizing (the browning in wine.) Finally, SO2 assists in retaining a fruity character in the wine.

Widely used throughout the winemaking world, SO2 can be added at any point throughout the process. Typically sulfites are added at harvest, during crushing, throughout barrel top up, and most importantly, throughout bottling.

Mythbust No. 1: Sulfites Are Inherently Unnatural

Many sulfur-discriminating foodies and wine-enthusiasts think of sulfites as something artificial. That assumption is false.

Sulfites are naturally created by yeast during the winemaking process.

Mythbust No. 2: Natural Wines Have No Sulfites

As mentioned, sulfites are created naturally during the winemaking process. Even natural, organic, or biodynamic wines always contain traces of sulfites. All wines have sulfites.

While adding SO2 may not be a necessity, it’s widely regarded as one of winemakers’ most useful tools. While some natural wine producers eschews additives altogether, many strike a compromise by using sulfites but only in a minimal dosage. When they do add the compound, the addition will typically be during the last phase of bottling.

In my experience, sulfur dioxide makes a huge difference in flavor, it preserves taste. The effect is especially apparent when tasting a natural wine straight from the winery versus one that has been shipped across continents. In the latter case, a small amount of SO2 prior to bottling helps to preserve taste throughout a long voyage at sea.

Mythbust No. 3: Red Wine Causes Worse Headaches Due To Sulfites

Perhaps, you’ve heard someone complain that they must drink white wine because the higher sulfites in red wine give them a headache. Alas, this theory is also likely false.

Red wines contain a range of phenolic compounds like tannins and anthocyanins (the component that give red wine its color). These phenolics provide a natural barrier from oxidation, while also binding easily with the sulfur dioxide. Therefore a lower concentration is needed to protect the wine.

On the other hand, white wines lack these protective elements. So, SO2 is crucial to ensure a vibrant and fruity style. In addition, high levels of residual sugar in sweet wines mean that there is plenty of opportunity for bacteria to thrive—so, sulfites are key to combating that problem as well.

SO2 can also be used to stop fermentation before all of the sugar is converted to alcohol. Winemakers that produce Prosecco, Moscato Asti or any off-dry wine will typically require the addition of SO2 to ensure that all of the yeast is killed and re-fermentation in bottle does not take place.

In short, white wines generally have more sulfites than reds.

Then Why All The Sulfur Hate?

Since 1988, any bottle of alcoholic beverage sold in the US with over 10 parts per million (PPM) or more of sulfur dioxide must carry the words “contains sulfites”. Most dry wines carry around 25-75 PPM. Yet, the FDA singles out SO2, labelling it as an additive. Consequently, there is a common misconception that seeing the word “sulfites” on the label equal a headache.

To offer some perspective, the average serving of french fries contain 2,000 PPM of sulfites. Can you recall ever getting a headache from eating fries? Didn’t think so.

Please note, there is logic behind this extensive SO2 labelling: Excess sulfites might induce a reaction in asthma sufferers or people with an SO2 intolerance. In fact, around 1% of the US population have sulfite sensitivity which can cause trouble breathing.

Sulfites in wine have been demonized over the years, and evidently, without good reason. Not only do they get a bad rep due to the required labeling, but they actually aren’t the cause of your post-red wine headache. Sure, there are many reasons to enjoy natural wines (and, obviously, those with allergies should stay away from high sulfite levels). However, we should not ignore other wine varieties on the basis of their SO2 content.

Emilie has cultivated her palate through gaining her Diploma and Certified Educator from WSET, Certified Sommelier from CMS, HEG Certificate from Cordon Bleu, and is currently a Master of Wine Candidate. As Head of Education Asia & MEIA, she develops programs for front line staff across China, where her team trains thousands of drink enthusiasts across Asia. She currently serves as China Eastern Airlines Official Wine Consultant for First and Business Class.

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