What’s the deal with sulphur in my wine?

There’s a lot of confusion around the different terms you see on wine bottles. For example, does vegan wine have sulphites? Is organic wine sulphur free? And so on. This is the second in a series of blogs where I am trying to clear up some of the myths around these different terms so you don’t get tricked into buying non-vegan wine. Following on from my recent blog on Organic wine, this one looks at sulphur in wine.

Why is sulphur added?

Sulphur is a very necessary addition in wine making but is often misunderstood and has nothing to do with whether the wine is vegan or not. Sulphur is essentially a preservative and an antiseptic. It can be added to picked grapes to keep them fresh and free from bacteria while they are being transported to the winery. This is especially important if the vineyards and wineries are in different locations. Additionally, winemakers add it to wine in order to stabilise the wine and stop it deteriorating or succumbing to bacteria related spoilage. In both of these cases, sulphur is doing a valuable job of reducing waste and maintaining quality in your wine. Sulphur is also used at other stages in the wine making process. For example, to stop fermentation early to create a sweeter wine or to stop a process called malolactic fermentation.

As you can see from these uses, the amount of sulphur added to the wine is going to vary significantly depending on the winemaker, the style of wine and the proximity of the vineyards to the winery.

Sulphur exists naturally in the vineyard as well and also comes from the grape skins and stems during fermentation. Because red wines are fermented with their skins (and often their stems as well), red wines have higher levels of naturally occurring sulphites than white wine. Consequently, red wines tend to have less sulphur added.

Sulphur can be used to hide wine faults, although this practice is more common in mass production wines. I’m sure you can all remember buying a cheap bottle of plonk and getting a strong whiff of sulphur when opening it or drinking it. A sure indication that it has way too much sulphur in it! 

Does sulphur cause headaches?

This is the big one with sulphites – does no sulphur wines mean no headaches? Sadly not! Headaches from wine are typically down to two things:

  • Dehydration – you’ve drunk too much and/or you’ve not drunk enough water.
  • Histamines – the naturally occurring histamines in wine are causing a mild allergic reaction. Red wines are naturally higher in histamines than white wines. So if this is an issue for you, you may well find that you suffer less when drinking white wines.

There is a very small percentage of the population who are allergic to sulphites and these people will have an allergic reaction if they consume any. But for most people, headaches after drinking wine has nothing to do with the sulphites. As a side note, sulphites may make asthma symptoms worse as might the histamines in wine.

On the other hand, it is common for people to report having a clearer head after drinking no or low sulphur wine the night before. This is most likely down to the fact that a wine made without sulphur will have had a lot of care taken over it, including less other additives. Like most things, the more ‘pure’ the wine is, the better.

Low sulphur wine

If low or no sulphur wines are intriguing you, we recommend you try low sulphur first as the flavour profile is no different to other wines. We have a good range of low sulphur wines as we work with a lot of small producers, who typically use less sulphur than mass produced wines. You can browse our range here: Low Sulphur Vegan Wines.

There isn’t an agreed definition on low sulphur, but we have used the following levels, which are at least half the permitted amount:

  • Red wines – up to 70mg/l
  • White and rosé wines – up to 100mg/l

If you have an allergy to sulphites, or are concerned that headaches or other symptoms are due to sulphites, you should try wine with no added sulphites.

No added sulphur wine

In our experience, no added sulphur wines often taste quite different. Some have described them as being ‘funky’ similar to natural wines. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it can just be unexpected when you first try a no sulphur wine. Personally, we prefer wines with some sulphites. Additionally, there can be a lot of variation between no added sulphur wines, even within the same batch of wine.

No added sulphur wines are allowed to have up to 10mg/l because of naturally occurring sulphites. Interestingly, the amount of sulphites occurring naturally in a wine can exceed this limit, meaning some no added sulphite wines cannot be labelled as such!

To produce a good no sulphur added wine is a real act of dedication. Everything has to be just right; the grapes must be perfectly ripe, with no bad ones at all. Everything in the winery must be exceptionally clean to reduce bacteria and there must be absolutely no oxygen while the wine is being stored to ensure the wine keeps well.

We have tasted a lot of different no sulphur wines and have found 3 red wines that we feel are good enough to add to our collection. If you’re intrigued by no sulphur wines or looking for wine in its purest form, why not give these a try:

We are still on the hunt for some good no added sulphur white wines.

Maximum levels

Finally, let’s take a look at the maximum levels of sulphites allowed in wine under EU law:

  • Red wines – 150 mg/l
  • White or rosé wines – 200 mg/l
  • Sparkling wines – 235mg/l
  • Sweet wines – 250 mg/l (or 400 mg/l for really sweet wines such as Sauternes)

These levels reduce further for organic wines: 100 mg/l for reds, 150 mg/l for whites and rosés, and 220 mg/l for most sweet wines.

The mg/l measure is comparable to the ppm and mg/kg measures you may see on other food stuffs. Sulphites can be in all sorts of foods and often at much higher levels than those seen in wine. Dried fruits are particularly high in sulphur. For example, raisins and prunes contain between 500 – 2000 ppm.