By Oana Marchis


Ever noticed "contains sulfites" on wine labels and wondered about their impact? Sulfites, or sulfur dioxide (SO2), often get a bad rep, blamed for everything from headaches to allergic reactions. Let's dive deeper into sulfites in wine, debunk common misconceptions, and uncover the truth behind their role.

What are sulfites?

Sulfites are a compound also known as sulfur dioxide or SO2. They:

  • Protect against oxidation, preserving wine's color, flavor, and aroma
  • Prevent unwanted growth of microorganisms
  • Maintain the desired color
  • Enhance yeast growth for better fermentation
  • Improve the release of desired compounds from grape skins and seeds

Sulfites and their impact on health:

People believe that sulfites are responsible for their bad symptoms after drinking wine. Unless you belong to that very small group (less than 1%) of sulfite sensitive people and you don’t have a severe allergic reaction within half an hour of your first sip, sulfites are probably not to blame. Headaches may result from other factors like too much drinking (alcohol intoxication), consequent dehydration (sorry, yes wine is still not hydrating), histamine issues (a lot of people have these), or the 99 other additives in conventional wine (which you never find on the label). Sulfite sensitive people do exist though. Take for example Patrick Bouju of Domaine La Bohème - whose sulfite intolerance didn't stop him from falling in love with natural wine, but convinced him to study viticulture and become one of the leading voices of the natural wine movement.
If you are looking for 0/0 wine options (zero sulfites added), try the wines of La Via Del Colle  or Masseria La Cattiva, they never add any sulfites during any phase of the winemaking process!

Where else do you find sulfites?

Sulfites are a natural part of any fermentation process, but they are also used in food processing - so you will find sulfites inside an whole list of foods. From French fries to dried fruit, sauces, processed meat, pickles and many more. Most of the things just mentioned can contain way more sulfites than wine does, but unless it’s wine, sulfites don’t have to be declared on the label. So again, if wine gives you a headache, these foods should too if you are sulfite intolerant.

The myth of sulfite-free wine:

A very persistent myth is sulfite-free wine. Sulfite-free wine does not exist, no matter how hard you try. As sulfites are a part of the natural fermentation process they are a part of the winemaking process.

Sometimes, the natural occurring and low SO2 content is not enough to keep the wine stable for storage. Conventional winemakers use SO2 in overly large quantities during the whole process to ensure that the taste of the wine remains the same year after year no matter the harvest. Natural winemakers use very little to no additional amounts.

Without added sulfites, a 1961 Bordeaux would be considered trash vinegar rather than a treasure.” says Marissa Ross of Bon Appetit.

Natural wines are definitely more prone to change from vintage to vintage. Because no year is the same, no weather is the same. No grape is the same. But if you are a good natural winemaker, you have the knowledge to react and the craftsmanship to ensure a stable outcome and tastes to rely on. Some natural winemakers rely on the natural amount of SO2 that occurs during the spontaneous fermentation process, while others will add a minimal amount if it was not enough.

SO2 is the best naturally occurring preservative and anti-oxidant. Still, it’s all about the amount!

Bottom Line?

So, what's the bottom line? Don’t overthink this and enjoy your wine. Yes, there are 99 chemical additives paired with high sulfite levels in conventional wine you can worry about. But we’re talking natural wine here and if you still worry about sulfites, the amounts winemakers add are so low, you should get bigger headaches from a handfull of dried fruit. Maybe get a histamine check, or try sip some water with your wine to keep hydrated. And always drink responsibly!