by Jacob Brower, Wine & Spirits Professional
People are confused about sulfites. They’re a buzzword in the world of wine, especially in retail, and thanks to misleading marketing, most people are woefully misinformed. Every single day, customers ask me if we have “sulfite-free wines” or insist that they cannot drink red wines because of “sulfur allergies” or “sulfur sensitivities.” Don’t get me wrong—I’m not denying that these sensitivities exist in a small percentage of the population. However, in most cases this is a misunderstanding about what sulfites are and how they contribute to the preservation process of wine and other foods. This is good news: chances are an unpleasant headache or killer hangover has nothing to do with sulfites!
All that said, there are legitimate reasons to avoid wines made by producers who overuse sulfur and other commercial, industrial additives…so it can be confusing! However, if you want to buy the best wines you can at any price point and make informed decisions as a consumer, it’s worth taking a few minutes to read on and de-mystify the term “sulfites” and how it relates to the wines you’re enjoying.
- What are sulfites, and why are they in wine?
Sulfur is used throughout the winemaking process, especially by commercial and industrial producers, for whom the goal is often to make as much wine as possible (as cheaply as possible) and have it be consistent, reliable, and easy to transport and store. It can be used as a treatment in the vineyard, to clean out and sterilize used barrels, and at the time of bottling to stabilize and preserve the wine. Sulfites help slow the chemical reactions that lead to a wine going bad, and at the winery they reduce risk of flaws and mistakes that could ruin a whole vintage. Of course, sulfur is also a natural by-product of fermentation—whether you’re talking about beer, wine, kombucha, or even kimchi, and as a result, there is no such thing as a “sulfite-free wine,” and any packaging or marketing materials that tell you otherwise are designed to be intentionally misleading.
- Do you have a sulfur allergy or sensitivity?
Maybe, but probably not. If you can eat dried fruit without getting a headache or feeling unwell, then you do not have a significant sulfur sensitivity. If you can drink commercially-available orange juice, then you do not have a sulfur sensitivity. If you can eat packaged processed cheese, you do not have a significant sulfur sensitivity. Sulfites do not cause red wine headaches—for that, you have histamines, tannin, and badly made commercial wines to thank. In fact, dry red wines made using traditional (rather than industrial) methods have the lowest amount of sulfur by volume of any wine category. Dry whites have more, and sweet wines of any color have far, far more. Generally speaking, the reason most people feel unwell during or after the consumption of wine relates more to one of two things: 1) dehydration, especially when drinking particularly tannic wines, and 2) sugar content in sweet wines, or even in commercially, industrially-produced ‘dry’ wines.
- Do organic wines contain sulfites?
Yes—all wine contains sulfites. More importantly, though, the words “Made with Organic Grapes” on a label of wine tell you almost nothing about the amount of sulfur in the bottle. Quite simply, not all organic wines are equal, and many large producers use this more as a marketing word than any real indication of quality or production methods. In fact, the base line level of organic certification relates only to farming, and does not control the methods used during vinification (winemaking) at all—as a result, many cheaply made, “certified organic” wines are pumped full of sulfur and other additives. In these cases, the vineyards go through organic certification solely to take advantage of misinformation and convince you to buy their products. To further confuse matters, many of the most hands off, naturally-produced wines in the world remain uncertified because small producers cannot afford the high cost of official certification and labeling. As a result, if you’re looking for naturally made, non-interventionist organically-and-biodynamically farmed wines, you need to find a wine store and/or professional that you trust! Otherwise, if you’re only buying wines that say “organic” on the label because you think it means they are less commercial, you might end up drinking less 'naturally'-made wine than you thought.
- Is there any good reason to avoid wines made with large quantities of added sulfur?
Yes! Rather than framing it as a ‘health’ issue, you should look at it as a matter of buying hiqh-quality, well-made wine. Thankfully, this is by no means a matter of price point. The reality is that industrially-made commercial wines—designed to be made cheaply, with significant chemical intervention, and then sold at a high margin—exist at every single price point, from Apothic to The Prisoner to Caymus. You don’t have to spend over $20 to get a more naturally, traditionally produced wine—a real wine, rather than a cynical 'wine-like beverage.' Wines made without leaning on the crutch of too-much sulfur, coloring agents, and other chemical compounds will be more expressive, truer to their sense of place, and much, much more delicious once you’ve learned to taste through all the marketing BS.
Fortunately, our focus at Amanti Vino has always been on small production, traditionally-made wines, and if you ask one of our wine professionals for a recommendation on a wine made with little-to-no chemical or industrial intervention, you’re going to get a bottle of real, true, authentic wine. And it’s going to be delicious!
The wines linked below are some of the most naturally-produced, lowest intervention wines in our shop, with little-to-no added sulfur at any point in the winemaking or bottling process. Whatever your reason for going au natural, we think these are distinct wines you’ll really enjoy!