What’s in my wine?

If you are a wine drinker of any kind you have probably read about sulphites in wines and all the potential side effects. As part of becoming more aware about the food and drink we consume questions are being asked about how our wine is made and the nature of the ingredients used, ranging from does prosecco have carbs, what alcohols are gluten free and what is sulphite free wines.

Sulphites in wines?

Sulphites in wine have become especially prominent in the news recently as they are a common allergen and also widely considered to worsen a hangover from wine. In the fallout from several tragic mislabelling and unlabelled food products resulting in fatal allergy reactions, wine makers are not taking any chances and ensuring where relevant labelling is specifying that there are sulphites in wine.

Sun shining on row of grape vines at a winery
Four glasses of wine ready for sampling
Small portion of raisins demonstrating different products that have sulphites
Close up of field of wheat

What are sulphites

Also known as sulphur dioxide (SO2) sulphites are a chemical compound that is naturally occurring in a wide array of foods. It is antimicrobial and antioxidant meaning it is good as a cleaning aid as well as good for preserving food, one of the main causes of food and drink going off is oxidisation (exposure to oxygen which results in a food rotting).

Sulphites in wine are is not unique to as they are naturally occurring and to items ranging from fish to cereals and canned fruits and vegetables. Dried fruit and vegetables in particular have higher naturally occurring levels.

Other common names for sulphites on food labelling are E220 through to E228, sulphiting agents, sulphurous acid and potassium bisulphite amongst others. Although normally the packaging will clearly state that a product contains sulphites as it is a key allergen the manufacturer is required to display. Whilst for sulphites in wine the standard wording is ‘contains sulphites’.

Why are sulphites in wines

The occurrence of sulphites in wines is something that is naturally at low levels in all wines although some wine makers do add sulphites to help with the preservation.

Winemakers are required to declare their wine as containing sulphites if the levels exceed 10mg per litre even if it is naturally occurring. Therefore, wines labelled as sulphite free actually just have lower levels than 10mg per litre.

Sulphites are added to wine during the fermentation stage to preserve it’s character, flavour and colour. Their use help to prevent a wine from going off and becoming vinegary to the taste.

Our fruit wines also contain sulphites although both have low concentrations just above 10mg per litre these are naturally occurring as we do not add additional sulphites during the fermentation.

Typically, sweeter wines tend to have more sulphites than dryer wines as the sugar in the wine needs to be balanced in order to stop it from oxidising. So, if you are looking for that low sulphite wine then you can’t go too far wrong if you pick an extra brut sparkling wine.

Green mug in front of messy bed

Do sulphites cause hangovers?

A widely perceived issue with sulphites in wines is that it leads to severe headaches. However, there is limited scientific research to back this up. There are a variety of food items that contain considerably more sulphites than wine such as raisins but do not cause headaches in the same way.

Unfortunately, it is likely to be the alcohol causing the headaches in most cases for people who consume wine as it acts as a dehydrant which can result in headaches.


How to remove sulphites from wine

If you do have a sulphite allergy though there are a number of potential solutions to try. There are products you can add to a glass or bottle to remove the sulphite in the wine or you can filter the wine as you decant it from the bottle. Again, none of these options will completely remove the sulphites in the wine but they will reduce them significantly.

If you believe you have a sulphites allergy you should discuss this with a doctor to properly assess what is causing any reaction and whether it will impact on your choice of wine.

Winemaking is ultimately a complicated process and there are a wide variety of chemical reactions ongoing throughout the fermentation and beyond in the bottle. Sulphites are just one small part of this and so shouldn’t be considered as alien to the whole process, especially as they are naturally occurring.

Bottle of Renegade and Longton elderflower sparkling wine with coupe glass


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