As noted in a recent posting, U.S. wine label regulations require wines that have a level of 10 parts per million (PPM) or greater of sulfur dioxide to be labeled with the declaration “Contains Sulfites.” And if you pay close attention to wine labels, nearly all U.S. wines include this warning.
Let's start by putting things in perspective. If you are concerned about wine because it contains sulfites, then you also need to be concerned about many other foods and drinks. While wines can have 10-350 PPM of sulfites, canned soups, packaged meats, bottled lemon juice and frozen juices can have 500 - 700 PPM of sulfites. Dried potatoes, as well as french fries, hash browns and other potato dishes made from dried potatoes, can have up to 1,900 PPM of sulfites. And dried fruits can have more than 3,500 PPM of sulfites; that's 100 times the levels in wines! So, sulfites are everywhere.
Why then are sulfites so pervasive? Simple. Sulfur is a very good preservative. It has been used to keep food and drink from spoiling for thousands of years. And today, winemakers depend on sulfur (as sulfur dioxide gas or in powdered form) to keep their grapes and wines from rapidly going bad. Sulfites can be added anywhere in the process. They may be sprayed on the vines to act as a fungicide, added to the grapes as they are crushed or added just before the wine is bottled. Winemakers consider sulfites essential to producing wine.
If you are one of a very small handful of people (the FDA estimates that 1% of the general population has sensitivity to sulfites), you are most likely to react to sulfites with asthma attacks. And this is very real for some people. Those who are allergic to sulfites do need to be concerned about sulfites in all food and drinks. But, for the rest of the general population, sulfites should not be of great concern. Medical research seems to show that sulfites have nothing to do with wine headaches. But, they are still not sure what it is about wines that causes headaches other than too much consumption.
There are some wine producers specifically making organic sulfite-free wines. But they must take special care while making and storing the wine to ensure that it does not go bad.
So, yes, if you have allergies or are asthmatic, you need to be concerned about sulfites in wines. If you are sensitive to sulfites and love wines, then you'll need to seek out producers of organic wines and confirm that the wine label does not have the sulfite warning. And be careful when buying foreign wines. Australia is the only other country required to identify sulfites in wine. All other country's wines will generally contain sulfites, but the label will not warn you. But foreign wine labelling regulations is a subject for another time. In the meantime, grab a bottle, pour yourself a glass and raise it to all the wine producers that are working hard to ensure that you get great wines that have not spoiled by the time you pull the cork. Cheers!