These days we are increasingly more curious and vigilant about what is in our food and drink than we ever have been. Of course, this applies to wine as well, and it’s something that wine producers are becoming more and more concerned about. In fact, according to Diva Wine, organic wine production in Australia increased 120% between 2011 and 2014, and this is, in part, a response to the consumer demanding more clarity about what they are drinking.
It’s great that people are more discerning about what they’re drinking, but there is a lot of misinformation out there, particularly about sulphur in wines. So what is sulphur? And why is it in our wine?
Sulphur Dioxide, or SO2 is a chemical compound made up of sulphur and oxygen. It’s naturally occurring in almost every food, and can also be produced in a lab. It’s used to preserve food and drink, due to its antimicrobial and antioxidant properties. By law, if a wine contains more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulphites it must state “Contains Sulphites” on the label, which can be alarming when you pick up a bottle off the shelf! In the European Union, a wine may contain up to 210ppm sulphites, and in the United States the upper limit is 350ppm. Most organic or natural wines contain 10-40ppm, which is why you may have been told to stick to these by someone who believes that sulphites cause headaches.
Some people are sensitive to sulphites – it has been linked to an increase in asthma attacks, with 5-13% of asthma sufferers being allergic to sulphites. Compare this to a 2009 study done by New Scientist which suggested that less than 2% of the general population suffer from a sulphur allergy, it’s clear that those with asthma are more likely to suffer from a reaction to a high sulphur wine. There’s little evidence to suggest that sulphur is linked to headaches. In fact, you are more likely to suffer from allergies to dried fruit, which contain around 10 times the sulphur levels than your average bottle of red wine!
People tend to believe that red wine contains more sulphites – think of the “red wine headache” we have all thought we’ve had at some point. However this is a myth. Red wines usually contain about 25% less ppm than white wines do, and 60% less ppm than sweet wines. The reason for this is that almost all red wines undergo Malolactic Fermentation, and usually contain tannins, which help to stabilise the wines so less sulphur is needed. If you’re getting headaches after drinking red wine it’s more likely that you’re having a reaction to histamines or tannins, or maybe you are indulging a little too much! (hey, we’re all guilty of it sometimes…)
So what can you drink?
If you have a wine with no sulphites in it, great!! “Natural wines” do exist and their quality is only getting better. We don’t recommend keeping them for more than 6 months as they are more prone to oxidation and spoilage, so crack open that bottle this weekend and enjoy it! If you don’t have any, try an organic wine. To be a certified organic wine, a producer cannot add sulphites, but since they are naturally occurring during the fermentation process, some will still be present.
If you don’t want to invest in an organic wine or a natural wine (though there are some very affordable ones, check out our collection of organic wines here) you can avoid too many sulphites by choosing a European red, or checking to see if any of our wines have no sulphur added post fermentation, but don’t meet organic criteria!
Hopefully you’re now a bit more informed about sulphites in wines. Remember that all of our staff are WSET trained, and can help you in choosing the wine that’s right for you!