Sulfites, The Essential Enemy?

Look at the back label of most American-made wines and you’ll most certainly see the phrase *CONTAINS SULFITES*.  Oh no!  Not sulfites!  Why, out of all the compounds found in wine, does this little punk get his own shout-out on the bottle?  Well, some people see red wine as an open door to a morning full of horrendous headaches and directly blame sulfites.  Seeing the “warning label” only fortifies this belief.  It seems odd, though, that these same people can drink sweet white wines (which scientists have declared often times contain more sulfites than red wine) without missing a beat the next day?  It’s because although sulfites certainly affect a select few, they don’t affect most.  Back in the 1980’s, the FDA did a study and found that “one in 100 people is sulfite sensitive to a degree, but for the 10% of the population who are asthmatic, only 5% of that group are at risk of having an adverse reaction to the substance.”  (Sorry for the numbers, I know my readership goes down when I have too many numbers!)  Long story short, sulfites are not the bad guy and the 1% that are affected don’t even list headaches as a symptom.

But Mr. Ben, why are sulfites added to wine at all?  Let me preface this with a story.  A few weeks back, some friends of mine in a wine production facility gave me a bottle of organic, NO ADDED SULFITE white wine called Siegerrebe.  They did this not out of pure kindness, but because they couldn’t stand the stuff and wanted it out of their sight!  I have a fairly decent cellar and many wines to choose from while I started to write this blog, but considering my subject, I popped open the “gift” that claims to possess fewer sulfites.  Needless to say, I took two sips, poured the bottle down the drain and am now sipping on some robust Malbec to rid me of the awful taste.

Sulfites occur naturally in all wines regardless, but, continuing a tradition since the 17th century, are still often added to cease fermentation to the winemaker’s liking.  As a bonus, they can also act as a preservative to prevent spoilage and hindering the introduction of oxygen to the juice while being transferred from a holding tank to the bottle.  Bottle Shock, however, is often a side effect when adding SO2 to wine during bottling, but often dissipates with time (the longest being a few months).  All in all, I wish I had an answer to the age-old question of “why does red wine give me a headache?”, but even science still can’t explain this phenomenon.  Is it the tannins? Histamines (I’ve heard taking Sudafed helps)? A separate unknown naturally-occurring compound created during fermentation?  Who knows, but sulfites are essential to the flavor and life of the wines you love so let the myth die!


For more information on Sulfite Sensitivity, check out these websites:

About The Author

Ben Hilzinger is a wine slinger at Nectar Tasting Room and at the Arbor Crest Winery. During the day he masquerades as an aspiring drum teacher seeking to instill a sense of rhythm in wanna be rockers. In the evening Ben dons his rock star cape as a drummer for a local band. Ben hopes to share the love of wine with his generation and has aspirations to be a wine maker.



Owner of Nectar Tasting Room in Spokane, WA. (@nectarwine) Publisher of Spokane Wine Magazine (@spowinemag), author, speaker, consultant and internet marketer with Nectar Media (@nectarmedia)

2 comments on “Sulfites, The Essential Enemy?

  1. Hardy

    Added sulfites are not essential for all wines- Including some wines meant to age.

    Pop an Allemand Cornas Sans Soufre w/ a few years on it, or a Lapierre Morgon Sans Soufre and you’ll see that not all wines w/out added SO2 are undrinkable- In fact, they may be some of the most transcendent wines you experience.

  2. Ben Hilzinger

    Thanks Hardy,
    I appreciate your reply and I am excited to check out those wines! The bottle I referred to might have been an isolated incident :) Also, I admit I should have worded parts of the blog more clearly. You’re absolutely correct. It is not essential for ALL wines to require added SO2 and sometimes the opposite is more beneficial. I hope you keep reading drinknectar!


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