Wine With A Side Of Sulphur? Let's Get To The Bottom Of Whether We Should Think Before We Drink

Sulphur, a preservative that’s widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It plays an important role in preventing oxidisation, inhibiting bacterial growth, preventing browning, sanitising equipment used throughout the wine making process and maintaining a wine’s freshness, however is criticised by some and defended by others.

So what should we believe? Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is the most widely used chemical additive in the winemaking process, but also the most controversial, due to its effect on taste and health. Consumption of sulphites is generally harmless, unless you suffer from severe asthma or do not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulphites in your body, (which can actually change over the course of your life).


A surprising fact is that wine contains about ten times less sulphites than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 ppm. So if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have any adverse reaction you are probably not allergic to sulphites.

While all wine contains some level of sulphites, the prevailing myth has been that red wine has more than white wine. But the science doesn't hold. Sulphite levels depend on how the wine is made and how much sugar it has.

When producing red wine, the juice has contact with the grape skins and seeds. This results in a higher amount of tannins, which act as a natural antioxidant that protects the wine from bacteria. As such, less sulphur dioxide is required.

By comparison, white wine ferments for a shorter time than red wine and the juice doesn't have contact with the grape skins. As a result, white wine tends to have more sugar than red wine, thereby attracting more bacteria. And you know what that means: more sulphites are needed to halt these microbes from growing wild and spoiling the wine.

Still, there are always exceptions to the rule and not all white wines are high in sugar — dry brut and high-tannin white wines like Chardonnay are two such examples. When it comes to sulphites, it's not simply a matter of red vs. white.

It’s worth considering that the result of a wine induced headache could unsurprisingly have something to do with the alcohol content. When you drink wine -- or any other type of alcohol -- the hormone that balances your internal hydration is suppressed. So, you end up going to the bathroom a lot more. This leads to dehydration, which may lead to a headache in the morning. Therefore potentially increasing the quality of your wine, and lowering the quantity could alleviate the risk of headache and enhance the whole wine drinking experience.

Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago USA, and a board member of the National Headache Foundation, said that "Sulphites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don't usually cause headaches". In Champagne's case specifically, some attribute the headache symptoms to the higher than usual sugar content of bubbles. Others will claim some grape strains can trigger headaches by themselves, but the science here is murky to say the least.

It’s worth bearing in mind that wine sulphites are highest in sweet wines, they have the biggest doses because sugar combines with and binds a high proportion of any SO2 that is added. All that said, we are beginning to see a number of “natural” wines on the market, where little or no SO2 is added. This is a great development for the small part of the population that has an allergy to sulphites, and the biodynamic wine movement is also fascinating and positive for reasons that go far beyond the exclusion of sulphites.

Natural wine, organic wine, and biodynamic wines are made using the least amount of intervention and chemicals as possible. leaving out sulphites is easier with red wines, because the tannin acts as a natural antioxidant. It also helps if natural wines are sold locally and not shipped. This local aspect of “natural” wines is part of what makes them so interesting. They’re also often best discovered close to their place of origin.

Research suggests that these types of wine could offer less health implications and fewer side effects than those that are commercially produced. It's also a smart idea to opt for low-sugar wines that don't need extra sulphites. Although It’s important to know that SO2 can also form as a by-product of alcoholic fermentation, present even in ‘natural’ wines that contain “no added sulphur”.

Try the revolutionary Üllo wine purifier that uses Selective Sulfitetechnology to filter sulphites and sediments, bringing wine back to its natural state. All you have to do is place it over your glass and pour for a perfect glass every time.