Every avid wine drinker comes to a point in their wine-drinking career where they notice the mysterious “contains sulfites” written on the back label of their favorite wine.
These two words can be found on most (nearly all) bottles of wine in the United States.
Naturally, you may wonder, should I be concerned with sulfites in my wine? What are sulfites, anyway?
What are Sulfites in Wine?
Sulfites, or Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is a chemical compound which occurs naturally in grapes (and other growing plants) that nature uses as a way to prevent microbial growth.
All wine, therefore, contains sulfites and no wine can ever be “sulfite free”. It is also a chemical by-product of fermentation, meaning a small amount is created during the winemaking process.
Sulfites are also added in a variety of food and beverage products as its antibacterial and antimicrobial qualities increase the shelf life of many of these goods.
Why are Sulfites added in Wine?
Sulfites have been an ally to vintners since the Roman times, when winemakers burned candles made of sulfur into their empty wine containers, after discovering it would slow down the inevitable process of their wines becoming vinegar.
A few thousand years and a lot of wine drinking later, sulfites are still utilized in modern winemaking, although in much smaller quantities than before.
As the Romans had observed, they aid in preserving a wine’s color, flavor, and character over time by decelerating the oxidation process- making that delicious Cabernet Sauvignon of yours cellarable.
In the last century, sulfites have taken on another role in the winemaking process.
They are now the most vital sanitation agent in winemaking facilities, used to avoid the growth of bacteria and mold in fermentation vessels, tools, and other surfaces.
Lucky for us, this has led to a significant decrease in faulted wines on the market. Cleaner facilities mean a more consistent product.
How much Sulfur is in Wine? The “Contains Sulfites” Measurement
Current regulations in the United States require wines, both imports and domestic, which contain more than 10ppm of sulfites to be labelled “contains sulfites.”
This 10ppm is around the natural threshold of sulfites in a wine with no further manipulation, so most wines are minimally 10ppm.
The maximum amount of sulfites is 350ppm, although most wines total at around 100ppm.
One PPM (Parts per Million) is equal to 0.0001 percent of the solution.
Our beloved vino is not high in sulfites when put side by side to other products on the market- products which surprisingly are not required to have “contains sulfites” written on their label. Dried fruit averages about 3,500ppm of sulfites while french fries tally around 1,800ppm.
The good news here is, if you don’t have issues with sulfites in your other products, you likely will have no issue with them in your wine. Even despite the scary “contains sulfites” label.
Can Sulfites be removed?
Tools have popped up on the market, claiming to remove sulfites from our wine.
From liquid drops to the trendy Wine Wands, it seems like the new fad is adding something to your wine before drinking it in hopes of avoiding a nasty headache after a long day of drinking.
The reality is that removing sulfites from our wine is a task better suited for nature and time.
No additives, processes, or fining agents have proven successful at eliminating sulfites from wine, excluding hydrogen peroxide (which can only remove minute amounts of this compound.)
Over time, free sulfur dioxide binds with oxygen and naturally makes sulfites less detectable in our wine.
Which Wines are the lowest in Sulfites?
Considering sulfites are used to preserve wine over time, wines with higher amounts of naturally occurring preservatives tend to be the lowest in added sulfites.
Dry red wines, with natural preservatives stored within their skins, are the lowest in sulfites. Dry white wine takes second place with slightly less total sulfites than red.
Sweet wines are by far the highest in added sulfites.
“Contains Sulfites” In Conclusion
All things considered, for most wine-lovers out there, sulfites are a non-issue. The amount of sulfites in wine are minute, safe, and harmless for most wine drinkers.
If you are in the rare boat of people sensitive to these compounds, opt for a dry red wine or look for a wine bottle with the label “no sulfites added” to help lower your consumption.