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Low-Sulfite Wines: Facts and Myths

Low-Sulfite Wines: Facts and Myths

How are sulfites used in winemaking? Are sulfites bad for you? Your questions answered.

Winemakers have long recognized the necessity of sulfites in safeguarding wine from the ravages of time and oxygen exposure. These compounds serve as antioxidants and antimicrobials, extending the shelf life of wine by preventing the oxidative deterioration that can lead to off-flavors and spoilage. 

Common Questions About Sulfites in Wine

What are sulfites?

Sulfites refer to a group of compounds that include sulfur dioxide (SO2). Their primary role is to act as preservatives, protecting wine from spoilage and oxidation.

How are sulfites used in winemaking?

In winemaking, sulfites are invaluable. They ensure the wine retains its intended flavor, aroma, and color over time. Without sulfites, wines are at a higher risk of becoming “vinegar-like” due to bacterial growth or losing their freshness and complexity. 

The use of sulfites as a preservative in food and beverage is not a modern invention; it dates back to ancient civilizations, where it was discovered that burning sulfur candles in wine containers could help preserve their contents.

Sulfites occur naturally in all wines to some degree, as a by-product of fermentation. Winemakers often add additional sulfites to achieve the desired level of preservation, so the wine's intended flavor profile remains intact from the barrel to the bottle and ultimately right to the consumer's glass.

Consumer perceptions about sulfites in wine vary, with some American wine drinkers showing concern due to health reasons or personal preferences. This has led to an increased interest in wine without added sulfites or those with lower levels.  Meanwhile, European consumers might be less focused on sulfite content, potentially due to a longer history of wine consumption and different cultural attitudes towards additives. 

Are sulfites bad for you?

While the amount of sulfites in a given bottle of wine is generally harmless to most people, sulfites can cause adverse reactions in those with sensitivities. As such, the conversation around sulfites in wine is nuanced, balancing the trade-offs of keeping added sulfites to a minimum while also making sure the wine is not bacterially harmful.

Are there laws when it comes to adding sulfites in wines?

The conversation surrounding sulfites often leads to a discussion about the various regulations and consumer attitudes that differ from country to country. This is in contrast to European regulations, where the limits for sulfite inclusion in wines are often higher, especially for organic wines.

At a minimum, among the world’s major wine producing countries, regulations stipulate that wines containing more than a certain amount of sulfites must declare "contains sulfites" on the label.

In the United States, the use of sulfites in wine is strictly regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB). Wines that contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites must have a "contains sulfites" label.  This basic transparency allows consumers to make more informed choices, especially for those who have sensitivities to sulfites.

Common Myths About Sulfites in Wine

There is a plethora of misconceptions surrounding sulfites in wine, which often lead to unwarranted concerns.

Myth #1: Sulfites are the primary cause of wine-induced headaches.

Scientific evidence does not consistently support this claim. In fact, the latest research indicates that other components in wine, such as histamines or tannins might be the more likely culprits of headaches and other adverse reactions.


Myth #2: Lots of people have sulfite sensitivities. 

In reality, only a small percentage of the overall consumer population exhibit any sensitivity to sulfites, particularly those with asthma.  Symptoms of sulfite sensitivity can include mild to severe headaches, hives or respiratory problems. If you are among the individuals who have a known sensitivity to sulfites, take caution to seek out wines labeled as having "no added sulfites" or those with lower levels of sulfites. Consult with a healthcare provider for personalized advice and alternatives to enjoy wine with minimal risk.

Myth #3: Sulfites are only found in wine.

It may come as a surprise to learn that many everyday foods, like dried fruits and processed snacks, contain higher levels of sulfites than most wines.

Myth #4: Organic wines don’t contain sulfites. 

While organic wines do tend to have lower levels of sulfites owing to the more stringent certification regulations limiting the use of added sulfites. But while consumers seeking wine with low sulfites may explore organic labels, it's important to know that even organic wines will still contain naturally-occurring sulfites.

The truth about sulfites in wine is that they are, more often than not, a benign component that ensures the wine you enjoy is fresh and well-preserved. For these reasons, the levels of sulfites present in wines are generally considered to be safe for the majority of consumers.

Sulfites in Wine

Which wines contain higher amounts of sulfites?

While all wines naturally contain some sulfites as a byproduct of fermentation, winemakers typically add different amounts of sulfite additives to their wines to ensure stability and longevity. The amount added can vary considerably from one wine to another - and from one winemaker to another.

Red wines typically require lower amounts of sulfites, due to their relatively higher levels of tannins, which serve as natural antioxidants.

Conversely, white wines generally tend to have higher sulfite content, to protect against oxidation and maintain their delicate flavor profiles.

Organic wines, while not entirely free of sulfites, often have lower levels, as stringent regulations limit the amount of added sulfites. Consumers seeking wine with low sulfites may explore organic labels, but it's important to know that even these wines may still contain naturally-occurring sulfites.

When it comes to winemaking practices, there is a global trend towards transparency and a move by some vintners towards minimal intervention. This shift reflects a growing consumer segment that values the truth about sulfites in wine and seeks options perceived as more natural or artisanal.  Wines with low sulfite additions are seen to embody the pinnacle of artisanal winemaking, where the focus is on allowing the natural qualities of the grapes to shine.


The emergence of “low sulfite” wines

Low-sulfite wines are typically produced with an emphasis on organic or sustainable practices, where the use of chemicals is restricted. As a result, low-sulfite wines achieve the desired level of preservation but tend to offer a more authentic taste of the vineyard's terroir, reflecting the unique characteristics of the soil and climate.

La Mesa Master Class, 2023

This is not just a nod to traditional winemaking methods, but also aligns with the growing demand for sustainability and health-conscious choices in the food and beverage industry.

Whether you're savoring a robust red or a crisp white, remember that the trace amounts of sulfites are there to play a crucial role in preserving the integrity and longevity of our favorite bottles. 

Cheers to the art of winemaking, the science of preservation, and the joy of discovery that each new bottle brings. 

La Mesa Vineyards is a great place to try a large array of different wine varietals. We are known among Amador wineries and the ones near Plymouth as the winery with the most unique white wines (8 total) plus several award-winning red wines, from light to bold to suit every palate.

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