Much ado about sulphur in wine
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SOMETHING which we hear from customers fairly often is “I’m allergic to sulphites, I always get a headache after drinking a bottle of 14.5 per cent red wine.”
Or, “It brings me out in a rash instantly, it’s the sulphur” .
This begs a few questions: why, when and how does sulphur get into wine; how much is in it compared to other things we eat and drink; what bit do we have a reaction to (one in 100 people are affected, with asthmatics in particular sensitive to it). There is, however, no evidence to suggest that sulphur contributes to hangovers!
So how does it get in?
Most importantly, it must be stressed that sulphites (a catch-all term for every form of sulphur) naturally occur in wine as a by-product of fermentation, so all wines (and most living things including you and me) contain them.
EU rules state that any wine (or any foodstuff) must have “contains sulphites” on the label if it has over 10mg/l, which is less than naturally occurs in most wine, so that in itself is not that helpful to us drinkers.
The bit we’re mostly talking about is when winemakers add SO2 at various points, to control wild yeast, as a disinfectant and antioxidant, and as a preservative and stabiliser. This may have been going on since Roman times so it’s not a new thing! It makes life a lot easier and helps ensure that the bottle reaches us fruity and fresh.
If it’s not added, and there are a few, generally small, artisan, so-called “natural” winemakers who are evangelical about this, wine can be funky, cloudy, stinky, oxidise more quickly, have a mousiness and generally be a bit “niche”.
This can happen if the wineries practice poor hygiene, or the fruit has certain bacteria present.
Some love this funky style but also claim low-intervention methods make a liquid that feels more alive.
Levels of sulphur vary widely. Within the EU, maximum levels are 150mg/l in dry reds, 200mg/l in dry whites and rosés, 235mg/l in sparkling wines, and 250mg/l in sweet white and rosé wines.
Interestingly, maximum levels are much higher outside Europe, eg 350mg/l in the USA.
Maximums are lower for organic wines: 100mg/l for dry reds, 150mg/l for whites and rosés, and 220mg/l for most sweet wines.
Compare these levels with other foodstuffs and these levels are pretty low. Dried fruit can have anything between 500 and 2000mg/l! If you think you’re allergic, go for an organic red.