Guide to sulphites in wine

If you’ve ever read the label on a bottle of wine, you may have noticed that sulphites are listed as an ingredient. You may also have heard about natural or organic wines and wondered how this ingredient affects both your wine and your health.

Sulphites are naturally occurring compounds that can be found in foods or be added to act as a preservative. While they are harmless to most people and have been used to preserve foods, drinks and medicines dating back to Roman times, they have gained critical attention recently for their presence in wines.

Some people experience sulphite sensitivity. It is more common among people with asthma, and while reactions are usually mild they can be life threatening for some people. However, to people who don’t have this sensitivity, sulphur as either a natural component or an additive is harmless.

Sulphites are antimicrobial. They are added to many wines to prevent the growth of yeasts and microbes, to preserve and stabilise the wine and to prevent oxidation. While a small number of sulphites naturally occur during the fermentation process, the vast majority are added afterwards when the wine is bottled.

Avoiding sulphites is not without risks. Wine that has had no additional sulphur added during the bottling process may referment in the bottle. For this reason, mastering wine without using sulphur as a preservative is a difficult skill. ‘Natural wines’, those that have little or no sulphur added at bottling, are hard to master.

Importer Tess Bryant, from Tess Bryant Selections, told Mind Body Green (MBG): “Once sulphites are added to wine, aromatics and flavour are altered and the wine is fundamentally changed. For me, it is not so much the taste of sulphur and the presence of it: it masks some of the true identity of the wine.”

Different types of wine naturally have different concentrations of sulphite. Sweet, white wines have the highest sulphite content, while dry, red wines have the lowest. The sugar content in sweet wines is linked to an increased of sulphur. Because the tannins in red wines act as a natural preservative, less needs to be added during the bottling process to stabilise the wine.

According to Australian food standards, conventional dry wines can legally contain a maximum of 250 parts per million (ppm), while sweet wines are allowed to contain up to 300ppm. These numbers may not mean much, so to make a comparison consider that dried apricots can contain up to 3000ppm. In many countries, any wine that has more than 10ppm must state so on the label.

The amount of sulphur permitted in wines in Australia is significantly higher than countries like Argentina, where red wines are allowed a total of 180ppm and white or pink wines are allowed a total of 210ppm. Countries in the European Union also have far stricter limits on sulphur content in wines. However, when compared to countries like Sri Lanka and Malaysia, where the maximum sulphur content is 450, Australia has reasonably average limits.

Certified organic wine must conform to strict standards that vary depending on the type of wine. Organic white wines and rosé are permitted to contain 100 milligrams per litre (mg/l), while red wines are allowed to contain 100mg/l. Organic sparkling wines can contain up to 150mg/l, while liqueur wines can contain between 120200mg/l, depending on their sugar content.

Natural wines ideally contain zero added sulphites, though some wine makers still debate whether there should be a total ban on sulphites in natural wines.

Would you select a wine with a lower sulphur concentration over one with more added sulphites? Do you believe we should have stricter or more lenient laws around sulphur in Australian wines?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.