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Sulphites in wine: Are they really so bad?

Sulphites in wine can be a controversial topic. There is plenty of confusion as to what sulphites are, and what they do – or don’t do. To some, the labelling term “contains sulphites” is worrisome and may call to mind the stark warnings on cigarette packs. Natural winemakers are adamant that sulphites remove the character of a wine, dumb it down or dull its link with its terroir. Some consumers swear that sulphites are the cause of their headaches, hangovers and various other ailments.

What are sulphites?

Sulphites, sometimes spelled sulfites, is an umbrella term that includes sulphur dioxide (SO2), sulfurous acid, bilsulfite and sulfite ions, and more besides. Saving advanced biochemistry for another day, the phrase is most practically used to refer to a wine’s SO2 content, whether that is naturally-occurring, added by the winemaker, or both.

Sulphites in wine production

The use of SO2 in wine is the source of much debate within the trade. There are strong feelings on all sides, and there are plenty of convincing arguments as to the efficacy (or lack thereof) of SO2 additions at various stages of the winegrowing and winemaking processes.

Winemakers can choose to use SO2 at multiple points throughout the production process, for numerous reasons. Whatever the effects the additions may have on the wine itself, the idea of sulphite addition undoubtedly has a negative connotation for some consumers.

Despite notable efforts among natural winemakers, sulphite additions are still common practice. If this is the case, can sulphites really be as bad as some of us think?

Are sulphites in wine really that bad?

It’s a contentious issue, and “bad” may be a subjective term. Leaving winemaking philosophy aside for a moment, the most common concern about sulphites in wine relates to their effect on human health. Allergies, headaches, hangovers and more besides are attributed to SO2, but is it to blame?

In reality, the level of sulphites in wine permitted today is considerably lower than in many other common food and beverages, notably dried fruits and fruit juices. There is no scientific evidence linking sulphites in wine to serious health concerns, or even to the humble headache.

A very small percentage of asthma sufferers are naturally sensitive to sulphites, and those people should avoid sulphites in general.

What’s more, the addition of SO2 has multiple benefits to the wine itself, primarily for its qualities as a preservative and disinfectant. Sulphites in wine are not a black and white issue, but they’re certainly not all bad.

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