FAQs: Do European wines have less sulfites than American wines?
Are European wines made without sulfites?
The answer to the above questions and any variation thereof is: Nope.
Often when I speak with excited Americans who have just been traveling in Italy and/or elsewhere in Europe, they talk about how amazing, delicious, and sometimes “better” the wine was they had while there. More often than not this leads to a suggestion or question that it must have something to do with all those (unfairly despised) sulfites. While it’s unsurprising that travelers experienced some tasty wines while abroad, we can be probably 99.99% positive that sulfite content had nothing to do with why they found it tastier than what they normally drink.
Let’s explore this FAQ in two parts.
Part 1: All about Sulfites.
Part 2: Why wine there tasted better than here.
What are sulfites, and why are they in wine?
Sulfites are a naturally occurring inorganic salt that acts as an antioxidant and preservative. SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide) is the natural compound that dissolves and reacts with water to create sulfites. Sulfites help preserve organic materials like food and drinks and they also help safely clean/disinfect surfaces that come into contact with wine or food (e.g. barrels and bottles). In the wine-world they are particularly helpful because they are non-toxic, natural, and largely undetectable due to the small amounts needed to be effective. SO2 is added to wines and equipment to protect them against unwanted oxidation (=oxygen exposure) and bacteria or fungus (=elements that make your foods and drinks spoil). Sulfites and sulfiting agents (=compounds that can produce sulfites like SO2) have been safely used in wine for thousands of years.
Do some wines have more sulfites than others?
Yes. Added SO2 amounts depend on the wine style and other aspects like its PH and of course the winemaker’s discretion. Some generalizations:
- White wines tend to have more added SO2 than reds, primarily because fruit-driven whites can be more fragile and need protection – be it from skin contact or SO2 – to maintain their crisp freshness. Some unique styles of white wines like vin jaune from France are the exceptions to this rule – they have less SO2 added to encourage controlled amounts of oxidation!
- Sweet wines (e.g. Sauternes, Passito, Icewines, etc) tend to require more added SO2 in order to prevent re-fermentation or bacterial spoilage.
- Wines with a higher PH level (=lower acidity) require more SO2 because the lower acidity promotes more potential bacterial/microbial growth. High acid wines, like Rieslings, naturally have lower PH levels and are therefore less inviting to unwanted spoilage and bacteria.
- Wines meant to be drunk young tend to have less SO2 added versus wines that are expected to age for decades (e.g. Barolo, Brunello, etc).
BUT! While there are varying added/natural sulfite levels from wine to wine, there is no generalization that can be made between countries or regions in terms of how much sulfite content is in their wines NOR is there a difference between European wines sold in Europe and those sold in the USA. So a Cabernet Sauvignon from California might have less sulfites than a white Chablis from France while a Chardonnay from California might have more sulfites than a Chianti Classico…. And either way, bottles of Chianti and Chablis destined for the North American market are typically not “altered” in any way other than their label language.
Also worth noting: Though there are (varying) legal limits on amounts of added SO2 levels permitted in some wines, the majority of wines on the market are well below the max permitted levels – often by more than half.
Are there any exceptions?
Yes. With the growing global interest in wines that have undergone minimal vinification intervention (i.e. so-called “natural” wines, a label that is both misunderstood and journalistically abused), importers are now importing large quantities of wines that previously have never traveled so far. Wines made in these ways (e.g. not adding SO2 before bottling, not filtering, etc) are sort of going back to their roots – thereby challenging what textures, colors, and clarity consumers expect from commercial wines as well as following winemaking traditions from when people made wine that was intended to be consumed more locally versus shipped several thousands miles. In today’s global wine-drinking community, these wines are increasingly available. While most importers import these products because they respect them (and there is consumer demand for them), some nervous importers may ask winemakers to add a small effective dose of SO2 at bottling to make sure their wines survive unforeseen adverse conditions during their voyage (e.g. sitting on a hot dock for too long).
Is there such a thing as sulfite-free wine?
No, not really. Because it’s naturally occurring, it’s very difficult that a wine actually has zero sulfite content. Legalities and labeling laws differ around the world but in general a wine labeled “sulfite-free” means that they have less than 10ppm (parts per million) sulfite content….which even then is largely reported on the honor system rather than closely regulated.
Is there any advantage or disadvantage to wines with no added SO2?
The advantages lay partly in the satisfaction the producer gets from making a (commercially viable) wine precisely how they wanted, and partly in the marketing advantage of being able to differentiate their products from others out there. . On the flipside, wines that are very low in SO2 content may be more prone to oxidation and spoilage, especially under adverse circumstances that can arise during transport (e.g. sitting in hot shipping containers). The main disadvantage therefore is financial, in circumstances where more bottles than expected are lost.
There are however a few ways that some winemakers compensate for not adding SO2 to finished wines. One method is extended skin contact with the wine before/after fermentation (even with white grapes) which provides tannins – an element in the grape skins which helps preserve both grapes and wines.
Do “Organic” wines not have sulfites?
Beware confusing “organic” on labels with meaning that a wine is low in sulfites or completely free of them. “Organic” on a label has different meanings from country to country. In the USA a wine that is USDA “Organic” means it has no added SO2, while “Organic” (=Biologica) on an Italian wine label legally means that the grapes were organically grown and vinified, but doesn’t necessarily mean SO2 wasn’t added.
If sulfites aren’t so bad, then why are people so afraid of them?
Products containing sulfites or sulfite agents have been required to be labeled as such since the mid 1980s. The reality is that labeling wine as containing sulfites is NOT an admission that they are inherently harmful, but instead a warning for people who are allergic or sensitive to sulfites. It would be dangerous to assume that someone with severe allergies or asthma automatically knows that sulfites are in wine. It’s not so different from a candy bar that warns “May contain traces of nuts, soy, or egg”, in that only some consumers with allergies need to worry and further they might not know that a MARS bar has any of the ingredients that irritate them.
Why people are currently so afraid of sulfites is partly due to misunderstanding them and labels and partly due to the increasing ease of non-professionals and unaccredited writers publishing numerous erroneous articles online – often simply copying+pasting misinformation. Many Americans are suspicious of the ingredients found in packaged/bottled foods (e.g. GMO’s, artificial sweeteners, and the Dark Lord of despised ingredients himself High Fructose Corn Syrup). Combine this general ingredient suspicion with the legal requirement to label wine bottles with “Contains Sulfites” and vois là: sulfites unintentionally appear to be dangerous.
Some wines give me headaches…Is it from the SO2?
Seriously unlikely. Sulfites bother folks with sulfite allergies or sensitivities (less than 1% of the population) and some people with asthma. Reactions to sulfites in these cases manifest themselves in respiratory problems and stomach issues like nausea or cramping, skin irritations and not headaches. Take a look at my other FAQ on wine and headaches for more on the mysterious wine headache. If you have any adverse reactions to wine, the best thing to do is see a doctor rather than self-diagnose.
All this sulfite stuff being said, there are still a lot of people that come back from vacation swearing that something must be different between the wines they had in Europe and the ones they drink at home. Since we understand now that sulfites are not responsible for this difference some people notice, I have some theories on this commonly shared experience:
- The Holiday Effect: Wine, like everything else, just seems better when you’re on vacation.
- People tend to eat more when traveling. Anyone that’s drank on an empty stomach certainly understands that one of the best ways to prevent wine headaches and hangovers is to eat while you drink. Travelers may stray from their typical diets and restrictions when traveling, since after all food is part of the travel experience. This inadvertently might mean that indulging in more food helps prevent some wicked hangovers for travelers. On this same note, some folks might have a pretty questionable diet at home in terms of quality. And quite simply if you are eating better, you just feel better!
- American wine-drinkers may have never experienced the delightful table wine options easily found abroad before. Ordering a liter of Rosso della Casa is a luxury in many ways, offering a fresh and inexpensive wine that is more approachable and lower in alcohol than some bottled and aged wines.
- Many travelers or clients I work with reveal that they typically drink a pretty limited variety of wine when at home – tending to stick to the same few producers or grapes they know. The perception of “better” wine abroad might have something to do with stylistic and personal tastes of the drinker – which may have not been explored in great depth prior to traveling in Europe.
- It’s sometimes easier abroad to get high quality wines for pretty cheap. Budget wine drinkers may be simply drinking much better wines abroad than they typically buy at home.
- Terroir! We certainly cannot ignore that a place’s unique elements (weather, temperature, sunlight, soil, geography, etc) affect the wines too. The quality of the air vines breathe, the soil where they stand, the lakes or rivers nearby, and the water that they drink when it rains, simply are too important to ignore as factors on the resulting wines. Sometimes, you can really taste where a wine is from…for better or for worse!
For more information, take a look at this great source by The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (IFAS) “Sulfites: Separating Fact From Fiction”
(last updated November 2015)