Every time I see "contains sulfites" on the back of a wine bottle, I pause. "Is this safe? What does that really mean?" I always ask myself before inevitably putting the bottle in my cart anyway. Granted, I'm always shopping in the $12-$15 range, so I've also wondered if more high-end wines are sulfite-free. To get to the bottom of it, I spoke to a couple of pros from Napa Valley's Conn Creek Winery and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars about what the labeling really means and whether consumers should be concerned or not.
First things first: all wine contains sulfites.
Sulfites are a form of the natural element sulfur, and they are used to prevent food and wine from browning and spoiling. Without sulfites in your bottle of Pinot Noir, not only could it go bad in the bottle within a few weeks, but it could also go bad the day after you open it. Not only are sulfites typically added to wine to extend its shelf life, but they also occur naturally after fermentation — so wine contains sulfites from the very beginning.
There's another common belief that European wine doesn't contain sulfites, but in reality, it does — it's just not labeled on the bottle. The US is one of the only countries that requires this particular labeling. I'm even staring at a bottle of Rosé from France that's on my desk right now, and sure enough, it says, "Product of France. Contains sulfites." Wineries have been using sulfur in wine for many, many years.
So what percentage of sulfites do most bottles contain? It will vary depending on the wine maker, but a bottle typically contains between 40 and 80 milligrams per liter. Per US regulation, any wine containing more than 10 ppm (parts per million), which tends to be the natural amount, must be labeled as containing sulfites.
It's also important to know that many foods contain sulfites but aren't required to say so on the label. A sampling of foods that contain sulfites includes bottled lemon juice, molasses, maraschino cherries, pickles, fresh mushrooms, maple syrup, dried fruit snacks, and various cheeses.
The only reason you should be concerned about consuming sulfites is if you have a serious allergy, which is often linked to asthma. If you're concerned about your reaction to sulfites, there is a way to remove some sulfites from wine. But if you tend to get headaches from wine, the sulfites probably aren't to blame; histamines, which are even more common in red wine than white, could be.
TLDR; yes, there are sulfites in all wine, and no, you shouldn't be concerned! Go forth and stock up on $6 wine from Walmart, or choose that fancy Sonoma Cabernet you've been eyeing. Despite the bottles' differences in price and outward appearance, you'll find the same two words on the back.
Travel and expenses for the author were provided by Cercone Brown Company for the purpose of writing this story.