Sugar Free Wine Doesn’t Exist. Neither Does Sulfite Free Wine.

If you follow me on Instagram, you know that my life is basically studying for law school, drinking wine, and reading about science. I’m genuinely interested in the science, history, and geography of wine as well as the taste, and I love learning about it.

Like many of the topics on here, this one comes straight from my targeted ads after I Googled too many things. We’re talking sugar and sulfite-free wines, and I have some bad news. Sugar free wine doesn’t exist. Neither does sulfate free wine. Anyone who’s advertising those to you doesn’t understand wine OR science, and I’ll explain why.

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Why does wine have sugar?

This, my friends, is called alcoholic fermentation, and it’s absolutely crucial. And it starts with glucose (aka sugar) being broken down.

Wikimedia Commons

Alcoholic fermentation is a process that occurs when glucose (sugar) and yeast combine. As the yeast munches on the sugar, it creates alcohol and carbon dioxide (among other things) as byproducts. This is a completely natural process, and it’s what also occurs to get bread dough to rise.

Basically, the TL;DR is this: if you don’t have sugar, you don’t make alcohol. Since sugar in winemaking comes from grapes, such a thing as sugar free wine doesn’t exist.

Why does wine have sulfites?

The same process that makes sugar into wine is the same process that produces some sulfites, because as the yeast ferments, some sulphur dioxide is produced.

Sulfites have been added to wine since at least the 18th century, and probably even before that. A winemaker might add sulfites to wine at any stage throughout the process, as sulphur compounds can keep wine from spoiling by preventing unwanted bacteria and yeasts from growing in wine.

Sulfites are more likely to be present in white and rosé wines, because the tannins present in the skins of red wine have more natural antioxidants that prevent spoilage. So in general, red wines will have lower sulfites than white wines.

If you’re in the US, it’s required by law for sulfites to be declared on a label if there are 10 or more parts per million of sulfur dioxide or other sulfites in wine. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that wine with a “Contains Sulfites” label is going to have any kind of negative effect on your health (or your hangover).

Plenty of foods, including deli meats and dried fruits, also contain sulfites, and you never hear people talking about their dried apricot headache. (Or at least I don’t!) While legitimate sulfite allergies exist, they tend to be more of the rash/itch variety, and not so much headaches the morning after.

What are your best options for low-sugar wine?

If you’re worried about the content of sugar in wine, my advice would be to (1) stop worrying and enjoy the wine, (2) choose wines with lower alcohol content, (3) avoid cheap wine, as higher-quality winemakers are less likely to add sugar.

(Even if a wine is “sweet,” this doesn’t necessarily mean it has added sugar. Many sweet wines have what is called residual sugar, which is just sugar left over from the grapes.)

Added sugar is even illegal in wine produced in Argentina, Australia, Austria, California, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, and South Africa.

Lower-alcohol and dry wines that are delicious:

Espiral Vinho Verde

This delicious (and cheap!) wine has 9% alcohol. This one is available at Trader Joe’s . If you’re not on Vivino, DO IT- it’s a website that lets you track every wine you’ve drank over time, and shows you new wines you might like.

Fortino Malbec

This one is a , but it’s delish! At 12% alcohol, this is a lower-alcohol red wine. (Reds usually fall between 12-15%, but some go into the 16% territory). It’s pretty dry but not aggressively tannic, so you won’t get that weird dry mouth feel.

Cote de Brouilly Gamay

Gamay is a French grape that benefits from the cool temperatures of Burgundy to produce lower-alcohol wines. While it’s a common grape in Beaujolais Nouveau (which is not my favorite), there are really wonderful Gamay wines that come in around 13% alcohol is an excellent option for a lower alcohol red.

Other wines that are lower alcohol include Moscato d’Asti and Riesling. The is one of my favorites, but is not necessarily low-alcohol. (It is, however, extremely delicious.)

Ultimately, the best low-alcohol wine is the one you like the most, just in smaller quantities.

The best low-sulfite wines

I’ve heard more than once that European wines have lower sulfite content. I’m not really sure where this came from. In general, if grapes are grown in a warmer climate, this means that the skins will develop more antioxidants, so these wines will require less sulfites to be added in order to preserve the wine.

Some regions of France, like Provence and Languedoc-Roussillon, and areas like the California Central Valley might produce lower-sulfite wine based on the heat that the grapes are grown in.

frey viognier bottle

Frey is a winery that jumps through all of the (very intense!) hoops required to label a wine as organic. They also make a kick-ass Viognier, which is a single-grape wine that I don’t see very often. Last time I bought it, it was available at Costco for about $15, so definitely check it out there!

Bonterra Chardonnay

All of Bonterra’s wines are organic and have no added sulfites. While it can be harder to find white wines with no added sulfites, Bonterra’s Chardonnay is a great option from California’s Mendocino County and is generally available at Trader Joes for around $15. I like it because it’s not too buttery like a lot of California Chardonnays tend to be.

Tinto Amorio

This is kind of a weird one for me to recommend, as it definitely falls more into the category of natural wines than some of my other favorites (Read: it has some acidity that reminds me a bit of kombucha. Do with that what you will). There’s a little bit of carbonation, it is great chilled, and is pretty fun. It was around $45 at my wine store, so a bit more expensive than some of the other ones here, but I think it’s well worth it.

Why I don’t worry about sulfates or sugar in wine

If you want to buy any of the wines on this list, go for it. I’ve had them all and can vouch for the fact that they’re delicious. However, there are SO many wonderful wines that will have added sulfites or residual sugar.

One of my favorite winemakers, Robert Sinskey, grows organic grapes and has a biodynamic vineyard. Despite the organic nature of his grapes, the wine isn’t organic, because of the added sulfites he uses. Wine is an art form, but it’s primarily a science, and sulfites are just one thing we’ve learned to do so that wine doesn’t kill us or make us sick.

(P.S. Robert Sinskey is definitely on the spendier side, but their wine is SO GOOD and their vineyard in Napa is stunning. )

At Robert Sinskey with a 6-pack of Pinot Gris mini bottles. Sulfites make this delicious white wine possible!

Part of what’s great about wine is getting to savor it. If you’re looking to avoid a headache from wine, the answer is probably just drinking less of it and picking a higher-quality wine. Buy a good bottle, share it with a few friends, and drink water after. But don’t blame sugar or sulfites for the way you feel after an entire bottle of 2-buck-Chuck. There’s probably something else going on there.

If you like my wine content, please let me know! I feel like I post about wine kind of a lot (?) on Instagram, and I’m taking Wine Law next semester (yes, that’s a thing!) so I would LOVE to share what I’m learning with y’all!

sugar free wine doesn't exist but it is still delicious