Sulfites in wine – what it is and why you should care

Sulfites are added to wine as a preservative. Sulphur dioxide (sulfites) is used in the wine as a preservative and as a cleaning agent in the winery.
The WHO (World Health Organisation) recommends a maximum of sulphites of 0.7mg per kg of body weight per day. So a person of 65kg should not have more than 45mg per day.
Sulfites are inflammatory. They can create redness, cause asthma, give you a vice grip headache / tightness across the forehead, runny nose and who knows what else they are inflaming. 
The problem is not ‘use of’ but ‘abuse of’ sulfites. Sulfites in a rock form were used by the Romans so it has been around a long time.
At legislated EU maximum levels for conventional white wine (200mg/litre) a 65 kg person reaches their maximum at less than a third of a bottle of white wine. 
Some countries have higher levels than the EU. For example Australia has a limit across most wines of 250mg/l and USA of 350mg/l (more than double the EU conventional max for red wines) per litre. At 350mg/l – a small glass would put you over the recommended max.

Taking the example of dry red wine –  in the EU the conventional wine total sulfites max is 150mg/litre and the organic wine max is 100mg/litre. With certified organic dry red wine you can enjoy two glasses and stay well within the recommended level.

 

Biodynamic is stricter than organic, the maximum sulphite limits are lower than for organic wines:  Demeter is 90 mg / l for dry white and rosé wines and 70 mg / l for dry red wines ; Biodyvin is 105 mg / l for dry white and rosé wines and 80 mg / l for dry red wines.

 

Personally we only drink organic (and ideally biodynamic) wine and prefer it to be low sulfite or sulfite free.

As professional winemakers we add sulfites when we need to – generally our reds are sulfite free and our whites fit the natural wine category (under 40mg/l) but are not sulfite free. Not all wines can resist oxidation by natural means. We do make no sulfite whites but it is a different style and not as you expect a ‘classic’ white wine to look and taste (lovely but different).
feely_millefleurs_noSO2
I often hear 'it's impossible to be sulfite free- winemaking creates sulfites in wine'. A few articles say this can be anything from 6 to 40 mg/litre. Analysis of our wines that are no sulfite added shows no quantifiable sulphites so despite having read and heard, like so many, that sulfites are generated in winemaking our wines don't show this.
Adding sulfites to wine kills the vitamin B naturally present in grapes and in wine and vitamin B helps our bodies process alcohol better – another reason to go for organic and no sulfite where possible.
But getting hung up on sulfite free and not bothering to buy certified organic (see why buy organic here) is a big mistake – the pesticide residues in some conventional wines will do more damage than the sulfites.
Natural winegrowers can make wines that are just grapes and nothing but grapes and not lose the wines to oxidation because of higher natural acidity and higher natural antioxidants that are created by organic and biodynamic farming. Higher natural antioxidants like resveratrol (see Caros book Saving our Skins) because the vines create antioxidants when they are attacked by pests and diseases and if they have been treated with systemic pesticides they will not be attacked (and won't create these things that are ironically good for us). Higher natural acidity because chemical fertiliser lowers acidity that found in the grapes grown on chemical fertilisers. The higher the acidity the lower the sulfites need to be as more free SO2 is available.

If you are sensitive to sulfites beware of them in other products (not just wine) for example cured ham, salami, smoked fish (and other fish), dried fruit (and nuts), fruit juice and many others.

Interested in learning more about wine? Book onto our next WSET level 2 course in March or November or book onto one of our custom courses on French wine or a wine tour in the greater Bordeaux region. Chateau Feely tours, accommodation and the French Wine Adventures multi day tours can also be offered as a gift certificate. Email Caro@chateaufeely.com for more info or to book.

See our series on why organic and read more about biodynamics. visit to Chateau Feely in South West France ; stay with us or do a multi day course or multi day tour . Read about the story of this organic vineyard in Grape ExpectationsSaving our Skins and Glass Half Full by Caro Feely.

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