Wine consumers and trade alike remain very interested in the wine and sulfites discussion. There have been many online articles and blog posts in the past year dedicated to this issue. “Sulfites in wine” is often the number one search term for visitors to my blog as well, even though I rarely write about sulfites.

This is what we know:

Dried apricots can have up to 10 times more sulfites than wine!

Dried apricots can have up to 10 times the sulfite content of wine!

  • Sulfites act as a preservative, being both anti-oxidant and anti-bacterial agents.
  • A small percentage of the population has an allergic reaction to sulfites (according to the FDA, about 1% of the population, mostly asthmatics).
  • Low levels of sulfites occur in wine naturally as part of the fermentation process.
  • Sulfites are also present in numerous other foods and beverages like fruit juice, dried fruits, molasses, sauerkraut, pickles, corn syrup, packaged gravies and sauces, and vinegars.
  • Wines labeled as “Organic Wine” in the United States must be made with organically grown grapes and have no added sulfites (there will still be low sulfite levels due to fermentation).
  • There have been some very bad wines made with no added sulfites.
  • There have also been some very bad wines made with buckets of added sulfites.

So now we know that there are always sulfites in wine, just in varying amounts. We also know that the presence of sulfites or lack thereof does not guarantee quality either way.  There are many winemakers who say wine cannot be stable without sulfites and there are many winemakers who make stable wines with little to no added sulfites. It is true that the latter, low-sulfite wines must be made very carefully and with pristine grapes.

sulfites

What we mean by “stable” is the ability to drink well for a time after opening the bottle.  No-added-sulfite wines should be transported carefully and in a stable, cool environment to show at their best.

I am certainly no zealot when it comes to sulfites and have no apparent allergy to sulfites either. However, I do prefer a wine that has not been beaten into submission with loads of preservatives.  Moderation seems to be the key (as with many things in life).

I have had some joyous drinking experiences with wines that had no added sulfites. Many winemakers who make natural wines add little to no sulfites. You can find these wines through importers like Savio Soares Selections, Jenny & Francois Selections and Louis/Dressner Selections.

There are many domestic wineries that add minimal to no sulfites as well, including Cooper Mountain, Donkey & Goat, Coturri, Clos Saron, Kevin Kelley’s NPA project, and many others.

Below are quotes from two wine professionals about no-added-sulfite wine.

“I haven’t noticed a higher ratio of faulty bottles, TCA or otherwise, with [Beaujolais producer and low-sulfite evangelist Jean] Foillard’s wine, and I’ve poured through probably thirty cases of it at this point, so don’t believe folks who insist that you must load up on sulfur if you want to ensure shelf-stability for your wine.”

Lou Amdur, Lou on Vine, Los Angeles

“I have approximately 15 completely un-sulfured wines on my wine list and at least another dozen with extremely low dosages of sulfur. Conventional wine makers will try and convince you that you cannot make wine without sulfur and that once you open one of these bottles, you must drink them right away. This just isn’t true. I experience on a daily basis the FACT that once opened, these natural wines drink for up to 2 weeks and sometimes even longer. They improve and become more exciting each day.

On the other hand, once a conventional bottle of wine is opened, I have to sell it within 3 or 4 days max before it is no longer drinkable.

These natural wines are certainly alive and their longevity and development once opened is extremely exciting!”

Joseph Di Blasi, sommelier

I have had some similar experiences. Just this past week I was running around to some restaurants and retailers in California, showing the buyers a no-added-sulfite Grenache made in 2006.  I really took that wine for a test run through the streets of San Francisco, then back home to Los Angeles and it was drinking even better after all that action and being open for over 36 hours.

Sulfites are not a black and white issue and I am certainly not suggesting that all wines should be made with no added sulfites. What I am enthusiastic about is breaking through the industry myth that wines made with minimal sulfites are of a lesser quality or are only for short term drinking.

Amy Atwood- Amy Atwood: Wine Lover. Wine industry sales specialist, communicator and dealmaker since 1996. Organic and sustainable focus. Blogging at My Daily Wine.

About The Author

Amy Atwood
  • http://wine-beer-washington.com/ Bean Fairbanks

    I prefer minimal sulfite in my wines but I definitely notice a difference in wines with no sulfites added. This summer I was tasting some organic no sulfite added Pinot Noir from a well respected winery. We got there as they opened and they poured from bottles opened the previous afternoon. The wines without sulfites were terrible! The other wines in their line were really nice. The wine maker dumped the opened organic wines and opened new bottles. If they had been blind I never would have identified the wine as being the same. The fresh bottle was delicious whereas the bottle from the previous day was flat and sour. The fresh was so good we bought several bottles but we will be opening them soon and sharing them at a dinner party so we are guaranteed that the wine can be enjoyed at its peak.

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  • randy

    Premise: Higher sugars in vineyard = higher ph in brl = friendlier environment for negative microbiological communities (both bacterial and brett, higher va’s) = the need for higher (by like twice) free so2 levels in wine.

    Conclusion? wines that are picked with very high sugars (which equates to hgh alc) are wines that need much more sulfur added to them than wines with lower alc and higher acids. We bottle at around 20 ppm free so2. Wines that are much higher in ph (flatter) go into the btl around 35-60 ppm.

    This is particulary the case when one barrels past the one year cycle.

  • http://vinosambiz.blogspot.com Fabius

    Excellent well-balanced article. As you say, it’s not a black and white issue. As producers of natural wines, we don’t add any sulfites to our wines. I really can’t comment on whether non-sulfite wines can be drunk up to two weeks after opening, because I’ve never done the experiment! We have other reasons though for not adding sulphites, and basically it’s because we don’t want to or need to adulterate our wines with ANY product, including sulphites. If you pay a lot of attention to quality and cleanliness throughout the whole process (from grape-growing in the vineyard, through wine production and storage) then there is absolutely no need to add sulphites. Obviously, volume producers cannot do this, and some small quality producers choose not to, perhaps because their markets are far away or because they want to cut costs. I can only say that it’s perfectly possible to make quality wines with no added sulfites, because we’ve done it and we do it!

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  • http://www.calypso-organics.com Brett Chappell

    Amy, Great piece. Wine is just like anything else — GIGO. Sadly, too much now is GI. Farmers who rely on their wines for their living tend to take more care; they need less crutches. @Randy – I’d like to follow you down this high sugar rabbit hole – I think it’s one of the biggest problems in the business.

  • http://www.sondrabarrett.com Sondra

    Amy, great article. I think the conclusion still is non-sulfite wines are not for long term drinking. They certainly don’t keep once opened nor recommended to age for more than a year or two. Of course, this shows my bias as I have yet to taste an organic wine that was more than ok or decent. On the other hand, there are fabulous wines made with organically grown grapes. Can you name an excellent organic wine?

  • http://none Dennis Weiher

    As an amature winemaker (of 47 yrars) who keeps an immaculate cellar in the making process, I have experimented several years with no sulfites added. I have found that wines do not last more than 1-2 years. They are equal to, but they don’t surpass, the quality of my sulfited wines. So I stick to the mninimalist concept of sulfites. I do not accept grapes that require sulfite in the making process. I sulfite the finished wine to the 20-30 ppm fixed prior to bottling – whites on the high side and reds on the low.

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  • http://www.idrinkonthejob.com Charlie Adler

    Great article except for one fact: I don’t think many people are very concerned about wine preservation AFTER the bottle is opened, I think most are more concerned about INSIDE the bottle BEFORE it’s opened. That’s the sulfite issue: wines with no or very low sulfites often oxidize in the bottle within a period of months! The key is that added sulfites make bottled wines more shelf-stable and more age-worthy (well, that’s another point!). A study I’d like to see is two identical wines – except one has added sulfites and the other doesn’t – and how they taste opened over a period of time..

  • http://leks.su/ Ветеринар

    Lovely

  • http://vinosseur.com vinosseur

    Fabius,
    Nicely written and hats off to you for not using sulfur. The grapes have to be perfectly healthy in order to make wine without the use of sulfur, as you know.

    Bean,

    It’s a shame that your experience with un-sulfured Pinot Noir was not a good one. It is not easy to make wine without the use of sulfur, and it can create instability. I carefully select the wines on my wine list that have been made without the use of sulfur. And I will say again, that these wines once opened and oxygenated are much more stable than the wines made conventionally. I am speaking from my 6 years of experience working in a top wine bar (which had mostly conventionally made wine – over 500 titles) and a restaurant (currently) with the largest selection of carefully selected, natural, un-sulfured wines in Norway. I have much less wasted today and am certainly able to leave wines open for a much longer time.

    Sondra,

    You say that un-sulfured wines certainly don’t keep once opened.. Yet, you have only tasted organic wines that you though were ok.. Have you tried a wine without the use of sulfur? A well-made one? I just tasted a few days ago a wine made by Domaine le Mazel that I had opened 13 days before, and it was still the same as the day I opened it. They have been making wine without the use of sulfur since 1998. Again, you must carefully select your producer. If you would like some suggestions on which wine(s) to try, I would love to suggest some. Send me an email and I will reply :-)

    Charlie,

    You say “That’s the sulfite issue: wines with no or very low sulfites often oxidize in the bottle within a period of months!” Do they really? Perhaps this is more of a storage issue than anything else. There is so little air in the bottle once the cork is inserted and very little oxygen exchange and if stored properly, under 60F, their should be no problem with oxidation. Again, I speak from experience. I sell approx $40K in natural wine per month, even vintages going back 3 and 4 years. I have very little issues with unwanted oxidation. By the way, I would too be interested in a side by side study of the same wine made with and without sulfur – that would be interesting! :-)

    I will finish by saying that I am not against sulfur, just the over use of it! Moderation is the key to a healthy life!

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  • http://www.goodwineonline.co.uk john

    As Jane has a sulphur intolerance which has nearly killed her twice, we have researched the subject over the last 10 years and now have a retail website specialising in low sulphur and sulphite free wines. I agree sulphur isn’t necessary in well made wine produced from perfect fruit by a skilled winemaker. We stock wines from Domaine Viret in the Rhone Valley and have both 1999 and 2000 vintages (reds obviously) which are spectacular and in A1 condition.
    Did you know the Centre for Scientific Research in the Public Interest recommended banning sulphites in the 1970s for health reasons? And last year finally the World Health Organisation has recommended phasing them out! They have been linked to cancers and asthma. The asthma rate in children worldwide was about 2% in the 1970s, and still is in undeveloped countries who do not use sulphites, but has rocketed to over 30% in developed countries who do! I now drink only very low sulphur wines!

  • mirella

    purtroppo ho capito che il solfito
    mi fà male, non riesco a bere un vino bianco perhè mi dà seri probbelmi,dovrebbero metterne di meno.

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