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Winemaker Q & A: Sulfites

Last week Wendy asked us on Facebook: Why sulfites? I know several people that can not enjoy a glass because of the sulfites. I believe Europe processes without.

This is a very timely subject and one that I’ve seen discussed frequently in the recent press. It is becoming clearer that sulfites are not responsible for certain people’s adverse reaction to wine.

First, let me address the idea that wine made in Europe is without sulfites. This is largely a misconception. While I have heard of certain producers that make wines without adding sulfites, these are true exceptions. Adding sulfites is a worldwide accepted tradition in winemaking.

Sulfur dioxide gas is a very effective antimicrobial agent, an antioxidant, and as a result is, a very effective preservative. The difference that often confuses people about European wines is that they are not required to declare that sulfites were added on their labeling. On the other hand, many people are familiar with the common “contains sulfites” labeling on wine bottles here in the US. But European wine isn’t required to disclose sulfites, which often times leads people to assume none are present and that’s not always the case.

There are also producers in the US, and California specifically, who do not add any sulfites. These producers are part of the natural or naked wine movement, or are producers of organic wine. In both camps, the wines are meant to be minimally processed and usually are meant to be consumed rapidly because the lack of sulfites causes them to age rapidly, which results in an unpleasant drinking experience after the wine has been in a bottle for a long time.

But back to the idea of certain people being sensitive to sulfites; about 0.01% of the population is truly allergic to sulfites. These people will usually respond with an asthmatic reaction when exposed. Remember the scandal over salad bars where sulfites used to keep the lettuce from turning brown were responsible for asthma attacks in certain diners?

But this is truly a very small subset of the population. More likely, there are other compounds in wine that trigger allergic reactions. Histamines are commonly found in wine, especially red wines. This article mentions the following test to make sure if you are sensitive to sulfites. Here’s the salient quote:

If you think the reason you are feeling ill is due to sulphites, eat five dried apricots and see what happens. The average amount of sulphites in two glasses of red wine will contain around 20-40 mg. Five apricots will contain close to 100 grams, so if you can down the dried fruit, sulphites are not the problem.

I, myself, am asthmatic and an allergy sufferer. I don’t seem to have any problem with sulfites; however, I will tell you that I can’t stand sulfited apricots. Wine is just fine by me. I hope that helps, and thanks again for the question.

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