A winemaker grabs a disc, a hunk of elemental sulfur, ignites it and hangs it from the hole in the top of the empty barrel from a hook. He repeats this for each barrel in each row, the smoke wafting in the air, filling the winery with something almost medieval. Like a priest burning ritualistic incense.
Winemakers still do this. Though it’s far from the most common way to add sulfur to wine, it’s common enough that you might be touring a winery in Calistoga and see and smell smoke rising from barrels. The practice of using sulfur to protect wine from spoilage, volatile acidity (turning vinegary) and bacteria dates back to at least the 18th century.
The idea that sulfites in wine is why you have a headache in the morning after downing a bottle the night before is much, much more modern. The pounding skull is more likely caused by naturally occurring biogenic amines in wine, according to numerous studies. Or it could be simple dehydration from the alcohol. Yet somehow, sulfur sensitivity has become the new gluten allergy. And just as celiac disease and other problems arising from trouble digesting gluten are very real, yet exceedingly rare, so too does the statistical incidence of sulfur sensitivity in the general population pale in comparison to the number of people who claim that their hangover is related to the additive.
When used responsibly, in minuscule parts per million (ppm), the average person should never be affected—except that they may be aware of a noticeable lack of VA or mousiness. If you’ve ever nosed into a glass of natty wine you were looking forward to drinking, only to be greeted with a wretched and unmistakable stink that makes the wet sock of cork taint seem like a field of flowers, then you might agree that sulfur is not a sign of Satan.
The image some may have of the practice is probably the more common winery practice of someone wearing a gas mask and pouring sulfur dioxide from beaker to barrel—rather than the high priest of wine wafting his pendulum of incense. True, you would not want to directly inhale a large amount of sulfur (the burn in your nasal passages would not be pleasant), but when added at amounts that result in less than 50– 200 ppm in the finished product (as is typical in wine), it’s harmless to almost everyone. Some memories may still be tainted by news stories about the entirely overzealous use of sulfur at salad bars during the 1980s, in which wilting lettuce and graying vegetables were doused with the stuff to revive them, causing many who ate them to experience side effects. This is not that.
The “contains sulfites” label on wine is not a surgeon general’s-like warning to everyone. It’s been mandated by the FDA since 1988 for that 1% of the population who is sensitive to sulfites. Many other foods contain sulfites—and at much higher levels than you will find in wine. For comparison’s sake, a wide variety of canned food can contain up to 1,000 ppm, fast food French fries up to 2,000 ppm and dried fruit as much as 10,000 ppm. If you’ve ever eaten any of these things and not doubled over with a migraine, it’s likely not the sulfites in wine giving you that headache.
The hardline stance that some natural wine devotees have taken on zero sulfur is akin to the guy on TikTok famous for eating liver for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Sure, cutting out processed foods is a good thing, but maybe you’ve gone too far when you are cosplaying a caveman. Similarly, seeking out well-made and well-balanced wines that let the terroir shine through is undoubtedly a good thing, but there’s no real and responsible case to be made for being dogmatic about not intervening. Adding minimal sulfur to wine to protect it is less like injecting steroids and more like taking zinc to boost your immunity.
This article originally appeared in the May 2023 issue of Wine Enthusiast magazine. Click here to subscribe today!
Last Updated: June 6, 2023