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Unraveling the Sulfite Saga: What's the Fuss About?

Updated: Dec 21, 2023

Step right into the sulfite saga, where opinions and myths about wine are on a wild ride. With natural wine stealing the spotlight, the talk has reached a fever pitch. But before you take a sip, let's hit pause because the term 'sulfites' is often thrown around like confetti, leaving us in a haze.

Got burning questions? We've got your back. In the upcoming bits, we're diving deep into the mysteries of sulfites in wine. Whether you're a seasoned sipper or just dipping your toes into the vast world of wine, we're here to cut through the fog and spill the (natural) wine on sulfites. Ready to pop the cork on some knowledge? Let's do it!

What are sulfites?

Sulfites, these natural players found in some foods, pull double duty as additives. They're the secret sauce that keeps food looking vibrant, extends its shelf life, and puts a halt to the pesky growth of fungi or bacteria.

Is sulfite safe to consume?

Usually, most folks can enjoy sulfites without a hitch. But for some, these little guys can stir up allergies, bringing on headaches, breathing woes, or skin reactions. If you've got health concerns or known allergies, it's smart to chat with a healthcare pro before diving into wines or other goodies that might pack sulfites. Better safe than sorry!

What is the purpose of sulfites in wine?

Sulfites, the unsung heroes of winemaking, play a crucial role as preservatives to ward off spoilage and oxidation. While they naturally pop up during fermentation, winemakers often throw in a bit extra to lock in that stability and ensure the wine stands the test of time.

They're antibacterial and antioxidative.

They swoop in to guard your bottle against the surprise attacks of volatile acidity (VA), brettanomyces (brett), mousiness, and oxidation.

Natural Wine vs. Conventional Wine

When it comes to natural wines, the name of the game is minimal intervention. Some crafters opt to keep sulfites on the sidelines or skip them altogether. But here's the kicker – even in the world of natural wines, you might find a dash of sulfites because, hey, they naturally pop up during fermentation. The sulfite levels in these wines can differ, but they usually hang on the lower side compared to your run-of-the-mill wines.

How natural winemakers approach sulfites

Not all flavor missteps are cut from the same cloth. Sure, everyone wants to keep mousiness (imagine a hit of gone-off milk) at arm's length, but a subtle whiff of volatile acidity (nail varnish), a hint of brett (hello, farmyard), or a dash of oxidative notes (a touch of nuttiness) can be the secret spices that jazz up your wine.

Where do sulfites come from (naturally)?

Wild Yeast Fermentation

Some natural wines take a walk on the wild side, fermenting with the untamed yeast hanging around the vineyard or winery. This brings out unique flavors, and, every now and then, it may affect the production of sulfites.

Terroir Influence

The concept of terroir, which encompasses the environmental factors influencing wine, can also extend to the production of sulfites. It goes beyond taste and smell; it can even sway sulfite levels. The type of grapes, soil, and climate in a specific region may influence the overall sulfite levels in wines produced there.

Artisanal Practice

Natural winemakers, the true artists, stick to old-school tricks. Think clay amphorae and concrete tanks, not your run-of-the-mill materials. The vessel choice isn't just about aesthetics but can influence the wine’s characteristics; potentially impacting the need for additional sulfites.


Myth: Sulfites are exclusive to the wine game

Foods and drinks that often contain sulfites include:

  • Canned and frozen fruits and vegetables

  • Fruit and vegetable juices

  • Fruit fillings and syrups, jams, jellies and other preserves

  • Dried fruits and vegetables, like apricots, coconut, raisins, and sweet potato

  • Cereal, cornmeal, cornstarch, crackers and muesli

  • Dehydrated, mashed, peeled, and pre-cut potatoes, including French fries

  • Tomato pastes, pulps and purees

  • Condiments like horseradish, ketchup, mustard, pickles and relishes

  • Vinegar and wine vinegar

  • Bottled lemon and lime juices and concentrates

  • Alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine, beer and cider

Myth: Red wines pack more sulfites than whites

Reality: The color of your wine doesn't spill the beans on sulfite levels. It's a mix of winemaking styles, grape varieties, and how long the wine plans to hang around that really determines sulfite amounts.

Myth: Sulfites are the headache culprits

Reality: Headaches after a glass? While it happens, studies haven't nailed sulfites as the guilty party. Other wine elements like histamines and tannins might share the blame.

Myth: Wine allergies are all about sulfites

Reality: Sure, sulfite sensitivity exists, but proteins and biogenic amines in wine can also trigger allergies. If someone's not vibing with their vino, it's worth considering these other factors.

Myth: "Sulfite-free" means absolutely no sulfites

Reality: Nope, even wines shouting "sulfite-free" can't escape the natural sulfite dance during fermentation. It just means no extras were added during the winemaking party

Myth: Everyone's sensitive to sulfites

Reality: Sulfite sensitivity is a rare bird, affecting only a small slice of the population. Most folks can enjoy sulfites without batting an eye. Those with asthma or specific allergies might need to keep a closer eye on them.

Myth: Organic or natural wines are sulfite-free

Reality: While these wines might play it cool with added sulfites, they're not completely off the hook. Thanks to fermentation, there's still a hint of sulfite action. To know the nitty-gritty, check labels or have a chat with the winemaker.


To sum it up, navigating the sulfite scene in natural wines is a journey that demands a nuanced perspective, steering clear of common myths. Yes, sulfites hang out in all wines, natural ones included, but the misunderstandings about their impact on health and winemaking can cloud the bigger picture. Natural winemakers, sticking to minimal meddling, walk a tightrope between keeping the wine top-notch and letting the terroir shine through.

Let's kick off with kicking the idea that all sulfites are troublemakers. Both the natural ones and the extras tossed in are like wine bodyguards, doubling as antioxidants and shelf-life superheroes, ensuring that your favorite bottle stands the test of time. While some folks might be sulfite-sensitive, it's a rare breed, and most of us can sip our wines worry-free.


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