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‘What are sulphites in wine?’

Sommelier Filip Palfi explains what sulphites in wine are, why they’re there, and why they’re not the thing giving you ‘red wine headaches’

sulphites in wine ask the somm

In our Ask the Sommelier series, we put your wine-related questions to top sommeliers. In this instalment, head sommelier at County Cork’s Terre Filip Palfi explains sulphites in wine.

I’ve never really been sure what sulphites actually are, and whether they’re bad for me or not. Do wines of higher quality have less of them, and is it a high level of sulphites that is giving me a headache after drinking certain types of wine?
Alex from Seattle, USA

filip palfi terre
Sommelier Filip Palfi debunks the myths about sulphites in wine

Sommelier Filip Palfi responds:

‘Sulphites are in lots of things that we eat and drink. They’re chemical composites that can be found in nature, and even naturally occur in the human body. In wine, they’re used in two different stages. The first stage is when you’re fermenting wine. So you’ve got all your grapes and your crushing them and wanting to start fermentation. In this stage, adding sulphites protects the grape must so it can ferment without any unwanted microorganisms or yeast affecting the flavour of the wine. The second stage at which they can be added is when the wine is bottled. Sulphites are added here to protect the wine so it can age, and helps the wine keep fruity flavours.

wine bottling sulphites
Bottling is the second stage at which sulphites can be added by winemakers as a preservative

‘Different types of wine have different sulphite levels. Red wine has the least amount, generally, because red wine is made with grapes that have had the skins left on, from which winemakers extract compounds called anthocyanins that are natural preservatives. So red wines then will require less sulphur as the compounds from the skins are already naturally doing the job of the sulphites you can add. White wine requires more sulphites as they are generally made without the skins on the grapes – and rosés and sweet wines are somewhere in the middle. So, when people say, ‘I had red wine so my head hurts because of the sulphur’, that’s probably not the reason for the headache, because red wines typically have the least amount of sulphur.

The headaches probably have more to do with the quality and quantity of the wine drunk than the sulphites in the drink

‘Sulphites aren’t bad for us. There are a small percentage of people who have allergies, but most people won’t feel unwell from drinking wine containing sulphites. In fact, you’re more likely to find high sulphite levels in other preserved or processed foods like crisps, dried fruits, or pre-bottled smoothies. So, although sulphites in wine can be associated with headaches, I think, other than in extreme cases, it probably has more to do with the quality and quantity of the wine drunk than the sulphites in it.

‘Some might say that cheaper wines have more sulphites, but it has more to do with the winemaking style. Some winemakers will want to make a wine that’s capable of age and keeping fruity flavours, so they’ll add sulphites to that. However, there will be some winemakers who are making young wines not designed to be aged, so they might not add as many.

‘If you’re sensitive to sulphites, I would recommend going for a light, crunchy red designed to be drunk within a few years of bottling. Something vibrant that’s not aged in barrels. Beaujolais would be a great choice, as there they have this natural wine movement where some winemakers are using very little sulphur in their wines, resulting in light red wines lower in sulphite levels.’

Interview by Louella Berryman

Do you have a question to put to the world’s top sommeliers? Send them to editor@cluboenologique.com