What wines can I serve to someone with allergies to sulfites?

Jan 5, 2011

Q: I work in the hospitality industry and these days, more of our guests claim they have an allergy to the sulfites used in winemaking. What should I recommend? Older wines? Organic wines? —Neil

A: Sulfites get the lion's share of blame when people have an allergic reaction to wine (or have a next-day reaction from overindulging), but according to allergist Neil Kao, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, only 1 percent of the general population has a true allergy to sulfites. That goes up to about 4 to 5 percent among people who have asthma. Kao says that an allergic reaction to sulfites would begin with tingling, redness, itching and a swollen tongue, and then depending on the severity, progress to hives or an asthma attack. For more information on other potential allergens read our previous Q&A on red wine headaches and the latest research on allergens in wine.

But none of this is particularly helpful to know if your guests want to avoid sulfites in wine and you need to serve them something fitting that bill. Here's the deal: the fermentation process for wine produces very low levels of sulfites naturally, so there are few wines with no detectable sulfites. Many winemakers also add sulfites to wine after fermentation to increase the wine's shelf-stability and prevent undesirable bacteria and yeast growth, but some don't and they (or their importer) occasionally advertise themselves as such. One shortcut if you don't want to do your own research: in the U.S., the certified organic label indicates that the wines were made without added sulfites (but note that that is different than wines with the "made with organic grapes" label, which can contain added sulfites). U.S. law requires that all wines with sulfites in excess of 10 parts per million be labeled with the disclaimer "contains sulfites," but some people with sulfite allergies may be sensitive to wines with less than that amount.

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