Look at almost any wine bottle label and you’ll spot the phrase ‘contains sulfites’. This might sound like a warning, alerting you about potentially harmful chemical constituents, but sulfites are actually a completely harmless, essential winemaking ingredient used, as a matter of course, since ancient times.

This might seem a little confusing. After all, isn’t wine a natural product made from nothing other than unadulterated grapes and natural grape juice? You have always happily believed that – to paraphrase the finest ‘EU legal speak’- wine is the product obtained exclusively from the total or partial alcoholic fermentation of freshly crushed grape juice or grape must. But now, you look at a label and there it is, that curious little statement: ‘contains sulfites’. What’s going on? Wine with added chemicals?

Don’t worry: sulfites are harmless

Rest-assured, it’s actually perfectly standard practice to add tiny amounts of sulfur (sulphur) as a preservative during the winemaking process, and this ingredient must be disclosed on the label by the phrase ‘contains sulfites’. Sulfur is added to prevent the wine from premature deterioration and to preserve the fruity accents in the aroma. In the first place, sulfur prevents oxidation, i.e. it protects the wine against the damaging effects of oxygen, and secondly, it inhibits the growth of undesirable microbes and yeasts, which would otherwise quickly turn the fine wine into unpalatable vinegar. It may come as a surprise to learn that, the addition of a tiny amount of sulfur is not a recent development; rather, it has been the practice in winemaking for centuries – even dating to, as far back as, the times of the Ancient Greeks and Romans.

In modern times however, although sulfur is pretty much essential to the production of good wine, some wine lovers remain suspicious that it could, in some way, be detrimental to their health and wellbeing. Do not worry; there really is no need for concern. First of all, all reputable wineries only add sulfur with the utmost restraint – partly because, although sulfur confers inarguably positive benefits to the wine in small amounts, when used too liberally, it actually suppresses a wine’s bouquet and unpleasantly dominates the aroma; and partly because, the EU sets precisely defined limits in regard to acceptable sulfur levels. A dry red wine, for instance, is allowed to contain no more than 150 mg of sulfur per litre and, in practice, the amounts contained are usually far below this upper limit.

Sulfur has no negative impact on our health and wellbeing

An ordinary, dry German Riesling contains about 80 mg of sulfur per litre, of which about half, at most, is free, reactive sulfur. Except in the very rare case of someone suffering from a sulfur allergy, you can be confident that the sulfur used in making wine will have no detrimental impact on your health or wellbeing. The famous British wine author Hugh Johnson drew attention to this fact when he wrote that anyone who thought that the sulfur in wine gives them a headache should urgently go on a strict diet, because many everyday foods are treated with amounts of sulfur that far exceed those in found wine! To show what he meant, the maximum permissible amount of 150 mg sulfur per litre in red wine appears almost negligible when compared to other products: dried potato products (e.g. instant mash) can contain up to 400 mg per kg, unshelled nuts up to 500 mg, and dried apricots up to as much as 2,000 mg!

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