There are lots of different aspects of wine and winemaking that are misunderstood, but few that have reached the fame of sulphites. Perceived as the big bad villains; sulphites aren’t actually quite as bad as you think they are. If you drink a lot of natural wines or just the conventional stuff; here’s what you need to know about sulphites.
Natural Sulphites vs. Added Sulphites
Most people don’t realise that there are two different types of sulphites, also known as sulfur dioxide: natural and added. Natural sulphites are basically what they say on the tin – totally naturally occurring compounds produced during the fermentation process. You cannot escape sulphites, they just naturally occur. Sulphites are also a preservative, but the fermentation process doesn’t produce enough sulphites to create the legendary cellar wines that the rich love to brag about. Add sulphites preserve freshness and protect the wine from oxidisation, unwanted bacteria and yeast. Without added sulphites, a wine from 50 years ago would be considered trash vinegar rather than a treasure.
You’re Probably Not Allergic to Sulphites
Lots of people have jumped on the ‘let’s blame sulphites’ bandwagon – it’s understandable, we’d all love to blame our wine headaches on something other than simple overindulgence. If you are in the small percentage of people who suffer from a sulphite allergy you might get hives or possibly have trouble breathing within about 30 minutes of sulphite exposure. For the rest of the wine-loving population, there’s a chance that the headaches are caused by the histamines present in red wine.
Sulphites Aren’t Generally Bad for You
The ever-so-slightly ominous “contains sulphites” warning on the back of wine labels can give off the wrong impression – sulphites aren’t the equivalent of nicotine in cigarettes, although that’s what natural wine lobbyists would like you to believe. This labelling has nothing really to do with the actual health risks, and is more of a scare tactic. If it was really about health and well-being, the “contains sulphites” movement would have also targeted products such as dried fruit which have a lot more sulphites when compared to wines.
The reason sulphites became such a big deal is because in the 1980s there was a dramatic rise in sulphur allergic reactions due to the large amounts of sulphur used in preservatives. For example, imagine if suddenly everything had a ton of peanuts in it without any warning, and then a bunch of people with nut allergies ended up in the hospital, or worse. It does make complete sense to want companies to disclose that sulphites are in their products, but that doesn’t mean you need to be terrified of seeing it on the label.
This isn’t the time to stop drinking your favourite alcoholic tipple, it might just be time to try something with a little less sulphites in. There’s a wide selection of low-intervention, natural, biodynamic and organic wines on the market now – also, try speaking to your local wine merchant and getting some personalised recommendations.