Sorry, there is no such thing as a 100% sulfite-free wine. There are wines that are almost sulfite-free though and many wines that are far less likely to trigger asthma-like reactions, headaches, skin rash, flushing, itching or swelling. We’ll get to them in a minute.
Sulfites develop naturally as a by-product of fermentaton. Naturally occurring sulfites are generated in very small amounts ranging from 6 to 40 parts per million (ppm). All wine, beer and cheese contain some natural sulfites. The presence of natural sulfites is so small that it normally does not present a problem to anyone but the most sulfite-sensitive.
More sulfites are often added by manufacturers as a preservative and to prevent oxidation (browning) in processed foods like bacon, pickles, olives, jams, jellies, maple syrup, pizza or pie crust, shellfish, frozen potatoes, canned seafood and much more.
Winemakers the world over have added tiny amounts (parts per million) of additional sulfite to wine for centuries, going all the way back to ancient Egypt. Added sulfites prevent wine from oxidizing and spoiling, allowing it to age and develop its full flavor potential. Also, thanks to modern winemaking techniques, today’s wines have the lowest amount of sulfite that they have ever had. Most wines with added sulfites contain only 25-150 ppm, although the legal limit in wine is 350 ppm.
For most people, additional sulfites do not present a problem. If you are able to eat raisins or other sulfite-loaded foods, then you probably do not have a sulfite-sensitivity. A small number of people (about 1% of the population) however are very sensitive to sulfites and experience serious respiratory problems, hives, swelling or gastrointestinal discomfort, usually beginning 15 to 30 minutes after ingesting sulfites.
In 1987, the FDA began requiring all domestic wines, beers and spirits containing more than 10 ppm of sulfites to carry a “contains sulfites” warning label. Wines with less than 10 ppm are not required to carry the warning: that does not mean, however, that they are 100% sulfite free. All wines naturally contain very small amounts of sulfite. So if you have a sulfite problem be sure to always follow your doctor’s advice on drinking wine.
If you feel you may be somewhat sensitive to sulfites, there are a number of things you can do to limit your exposure.
Buy a large decanter and decant all wine, allowing the wine to aerate and excess sulfur dioxide to escape before you drink.
Find a good quality “no sulfite added” or “NSA” wine, or a wine with very minimal amounts of sulfite. My good friend, Veronique Raskin, founder of The Organic Wine Company, is an expert in this area. She says it is difficult to find NSA wines with good flavors. In fact, many NSA wines are lacking in flavor, balance and acidity. Without sulfites, they are also fragile, spoil easily and do not improve with age. She recommends drinking NSA wines within 18 of months of bottling, and ordering often to keep the wine fresh. Of course, it also means buying from a source that “turns” NSA wines often and stores them properly.
Another suggestion is to choose a low-sulfite wine rather than a no-sulfite wine. The Organic Wine Company web site shop offers many excellent examples of low-sulfite wines from certified organically-grown grapes.
Contrary to common belief, red wines do not contain more sulfites than white wine; both white and red wines contain sulfites. So avoiding red wine will not help.
Here you can find Veronique’s selection of “no-sulfite added” wines that have met with her tasting approval. Be sure to check out TheOrganicWineCompany.com web site for much more information on wine and health sensitivities.