Clean Wine 101
Sorting Facts From Fiction: The Truth About Sulfites
A lot of noise surrounds the subject of sulfites and it’s easy to get lost in the details.
Unfortunately, that means their use in winemaking often goes misunderstood.
Nearly all the bottles we see on shelves include the words “Contains Sulfites” on their labels. And the very fact that this info is shared could easily call into question whether this is something we should worry about. It has surely played a part in spreading the many myths about sulfites — like they cause headaches or are in some way responsible for hangovers.
These notions are simply not true. In fact, sulfites are both an antioxidant and one of the most useful aids to good, clean winemaking. In the hands of modern winemakers and thanks to careful regulations, there should be no question about it: The only issue with sulfites is their undeserved bad rep.
What are sulfites?
“Sulfites” is a term that links a group of chemical compounds, the most common among them being sulfur dioxide. These compounds, which you may also see referred to as sulfiting agents, are used to preserve food and beverages.
In winemaking, sulfites play the dual role of killing harmful bacteria and preventing oxidation. In real-life terms, that means stopping any off-flavors from developing, and maintaining the wine’s vibrant, fruity freshness (as well as preventing discoloration). They exist, and in many cases are added, to make sure that when you open a bottle and pour a glass, what’s inside is exactly as the winemaker intended
Do All Wines Contain Sulfites?
If you look closely, you’ll notice that not all bottles arrive with the words “contains sulfites” on their labels. But that doesn’t mean that these wines are entirely sulfite-free.
Sulfur dioxide is produced as a natural byproduct of alcoholic fermentation — the process that sees yeast convert sugar into ethanol. Put more simply, a wine can’t contain alcohol without some miniscule quantity of sulfites.
At the end of the day, the amount of sulfites present in wine — whether added or not — is remarkably small. So why declare them at all?
A tiny proportion of the population is sensitive to sulfites — somewhere between .4 and 1 percent, according to the government. In rare cases, those affected can suffer breathing problems if they eat or drink something that contains a high dose of sulfites (but as we’ll explore, wine does not come close to that level). Purely for safety reasons, the federal body that regulates alcohol production in the U.S. (the TTB) therefore requires all wines containing 10 parts per million or more to note their presence on labels.
To put that number into perspective, 10ppm is less than 1% of the maximum 350 ppm of sulfites allowed in wine by U.S. law. And even that limit is a fraction of the amount you’ll find in common food ingredients like dried apricots, golden raisins, pickled vegetables, and packaged meats.
Do Some Wines Contain More Sulfites Than Others?
It’s ultimately up to winemakers to decide the quantity of sulfites they add, so long as they don’t include more than the government’s limits. There are multiple points during winemaking when they can be added; at each stage the idea is to lock in the fruit’s vibrant, fresh character and ensure it shines in the finished wine.
There are some instances, however, where sulfite addition is strictly forbidden or further restricted than the general 350 ppm limit. In the U.S., certified organic wines can not contain added sulfites, nor can their detectable levels reach or exceed 10 ppm. Meanwhile, bottles labeled as “Made with Organic Grapes”, like Avaline, can include added sulfites, but only up to 100 ppm.
Another common myth in the sulfite conversation is that red wines typically contain higher levels than whites. While quantities vary from producer to producer, this idea disagrees entirely with the very reason winemakers use the ingredient in the first place: preservation.
Generally speaking, red wines are higher in tannins, alcohol, and residual sugar than whites. All of these factors act as natural preservatives, meaning the amount of sulfites needed to keep a wine fresh and fruity is lower in reds than it is white wines. (A great example of this is the fact that the EU actually allows larger sulfite additions for white wines and rosés than it does for red wines.)
Sulfites In Avaline Wine
In keeping with the clean wine philosophy of our founders Cameron Diaz and Katherine Power, all Avaline wine is made using organic grapes. In this respect, we guarantee that the sulfite levels in our red, white, rosé and sparkling wine is always less than 100 ppm. But you don’t need to simply take our word for it. We list these quantities in the nutritional information for all Avaline wines — because transparency, along with careful consideration of ingredients, matters in clean wine.