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Jake Bennett-Day, of Vino Gusto in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, discusses the use of sulphites in wine

For years, wine drinkers have been wary of the term ‘contains sulphites’ on a bottle of wine. It’s generally one of only a very few warning labels required, as under EU law, alcohol falls into a strange category whereby products of 1.2% abv and above are currently exempted from mandatory listing of ingredients and making nutrient declarations - an obligation for most food products.

But since 2005, it has been a requirement by law to declare sulphites if the present level is 10 mg/l. Mostly all wines will contain this small level as sulphur dioxide, or its sulphite compounds are a natural by-product of the fermentation process. Though almost all wines will have some sulphites added during winemaking or before bottling because this is the most effective means of protecting wine from oxidation and microbial instability.

So, should wine drinkers be wary of wines that ‘contain sulphites’? Generally, no. It is possible (though highly unlikely) to have a sulphite sensitivity, typically only affecting severe asthmatics (roughly 1/100 people).


Sulphites are natural, organic, non-toxic compounds. Their function is primarily as a preservative in food, wine and medications, preventing spoilage, mould-growth, bacterial infection and discolouration. In wine specifically, sulphite use is a protective measure to maintain consistency from bottle to bottle, prevent negative flavours forming from bacteria, and to kill off any remaining yeast cells, preventing a second fermentation in bottle which would cause the wine to become fizzy. In simple terms, their use is simply to maintain the quality and longevity of the wine that a producer has put a career and a vintage year’s amount of love into.

Still convinced that sulphites give you your ‘red wine hangover’? Well, it’s more common for white wine to have a higher level of added sulphites, as red wines receive a boost of natural preservative compounds from their skin contact phase of the winemaking process. If red wine doesn’t leave you feeling fresh the following morning, you can bet that it’s either the higher alcohol content causing a dehydrating effect on your body, or natural compounds known as biogenic amines. The most common amine is histamine, the same allergen found in pollen and bee venom. Hay fever sufferers will know that it is very much possible to be allergic to these compounds, whose impact can range from tame to severe. A helpful attack to this dilemma (assuming you have skipped the abstaining step) is to ensure you drink at least a glass of water to each glass of wine and to pop an antihistamine before you pop the cork.

It is worth noting that some wines do advertise themselves as being sulphite free, and some as having no added sulphites. It’s important to note the differences. Wines with no added sulphites will contain naturally occurring sulphites in low concentrations, whereas ‘sulphite free’ wines have undergone a redaction process by means of a synthetic and toxic chemical – far worse for you than sulphites, unless you are one of the very few with a severe intolerance.

But what about those wines that are simply labelled as containing sulphites? Typically, the best and most responsible producers tend to be careful about using just enough sulphur dioxide to protect their wines, but no more. The legally permitted limits are strictly controlled to 150mg/l for dry red wines, and 200mg/l in dry whites and rosés, with higher levels allowed for sweeter wines, though generally well-crafted wines will sit between 50-100mg/l. For wines that are certified organic, the limit is 50mg/l less than the legally permitted amount. In any case, this is a very small addition to the product and shouldn’t cause for concern. For context, let’s look at some commonly consumed food items that are significantly more sulfidic than wine:

l Bottled lemon or lime juice ~ 1000mg/l

So, next time you attribute a wine hangover to sulphites, think again. You could be one of a very few people who have a sulphite intolerance. You could, more likely, be reacting to histamines (or a number of less common biogenic amines). Most likely, however, is that the culprit is alcohol, which causes dehydration that leads to headaches. Make sure to drink plenty of water and always be Drink Aware.

Jake Bennett-Day is co-owner and director of Vino Gusto wine shop, 27 Hatter Street, Bury St Edmunds IP33 1NE

Call 01284 771831

See www.vinogusto.co.uk