Sulfites: The Facts
Historically and for most of us, organic wines have been wines made from organically grown grapes. The common thread that binds organic wine together world-wide is that they have been made with certified 100% organically grown grapes.
The definition of organic wine varies from country to country but almost always means that a reputable, third party certification agency has certified that the grapes used in the production of the wine are 100% organically grown, free from the use of chemicals. In particular, no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides or chemical fertilizers can be used. Instead, natural methods of combating vineyard pests are employed.
The global standard and most common prerequisite is that the wines be made from certified organically grown grapes. For legal, commercial and even cultural purposes, depending upon the country, some other guidelines may be applied to determine whether or not a wine can be labeled organic. In the USA, following the creation by the USDA of NOP (National Organic Program), an organic wine is defined as “a wine made from organically grown grapes without added sulfites”. By this definition, the majority of what you and I have been calling organic wines should technically be referred to as “wines made from organic grapes” (or organically grown wines), since they may contain up to 100ppm of added sulfites.
All countries monitor the amount of SO2 present in wines. Sulfur dioxide occurs naturally as a by-product of the fermentation process. It’s also been added for hundreds of years as a preservative. Ancient Greek texts refer to sulfur as having beneficial properties in wine. Today, over 99% of commercial wines contain sulfites. Since sulfites are necessary for long term preservation and also occur naturally, allowing only wines without sulfites to be called organic is shortsighted and confusing.
When we here refer to an “organic wine”, we are referring to a wine made with certified organically grown grapes using a small amount of added sulfites as a preservative. This is the definition used in Canada, Europe and most wine making countries except the US.
The level of sulfur dioxide in wine is measured in “ppm”, or parts per million. In the United States, conventionally made wines are permitted to contain up to 350ppm of sulfites. Organic winemaking typically limits the threshold level of sulfites to 100ppm, and levels are generally much lower (around 40ppm to 80 ppm). By the current USDA Organic Standard, any wine, foreign or domestic, can contain only naturally occurring sulfites (less than 10ppm*) to be marketed and sold as an “organic wine”.
*On January 1st, 1987 the United States mandated that all wines with over 10ppm sulfites, added or naturally occurring bear the words “Contains Sulfites” on the label. The law was meant to warn a small amount of the population that was allergic to sulfites.
Sulfites within the range of six and 6,000 ppm can be found in everyday foods: canned tuna, pizza dough, jams, gelatin, trail mix, cheese, deli meat and even prescription pills. Wine is the one of the few products that carries the words “contains sulfites” on its label.
Studies show that less than one half of one percent of the U.S. population is allergic to sulfites. Fewer than that number of people has a severe reaction when exposed to sulfites (mainly asthmatics). Common allergic reactions to sulfites include hives, cramps and red or blotchy skin. Researchers and allergy specialists suggest organically grown wines as a substitute if conventional wines produce these symptoms.
Headaches have not been shown to be a common allergic reaction to sulfites in wine. In fact, more sulfites are generally added to white wines than red wines and most headaches sufferers complain after drinking red wines. Headaches are most likely due to other chemicals found in conventional wines. Little is known about sulfites and how people react specifically to them but more research is on the way..