It’s almost a rite of passage for wine bloggers to tackle the subject of sulfites in wine and having published “Roger’s Grapevine” for over a year, I’m probably overdue. Today, I’ll attempt to tackle the subject with a recap of what I’ve learned from numerous sources over the past 4-5 years of reading and learning about wine.
The necessity for tackling the subject is the seemingly unending stream of people I talk to that ask me how to avoid sulfites in wine because it gives them headaches. If it’s not an issue of interest for you or a close friend that shares your love of wine, today’s blog might be worth skipping over. Otherwise, here goes my two cents worth on the subject:
Wine headaches, particularly red wine headaches, are of concern to a significant number of wine drinkers I talk to on a regular basis. Most of them are very quick to blame sulfites as the culprit. The truth is that there is more than a 99% chance that sulfites in the wine are NOT the problem. Here’s the skinny on sulfites:
All wine sold in the U.S. (regardless of where it’s produced) must contain a warning “contains sulfites” if the wine contains more than 10 mg per liter (1.25 standard bottles). It must contain less than 1 mg per liter to be labeled “no sulfites” (Note: this is much different than the often seen “No Sulfites Added” label.) While sometimes, sulfites are added to wine or absorbed into grapes from the soil, you should be aware that sulfites occur naturally within wine as part of the fermentation process. ALL wine, unless means are employed to extract them, WILL contain sulfites. Adding hydrogen peroxide to your wine can chemically alter and remove sulfites. I would guess, however, that it probably wouldn’t be very appealing to your dinner guests.
The “contains sulfites” requirement came into being after government health officials estimated that 1% of the U.S. population may suffer from sensitivity to sulfites. However, sulfite reactions are almost always either dermatological or respiratory in nature. You’re more likely to get a rash or shortness of breath than a headache. If you’re asthmatic or C.O.P.D. and you utilize steroids in treating your condition, and also happen to be among the 1% who of the population who have sulfite sensitivity, you could possibly suffer headaches after ingesting wine with concentrated sulfites. A 2001 study by H. Valley & P.J. Thompson showed that an asthmatic response in sulfite sensitive subjects first appeared at extremely high sulfite levels in the vicinity of 300 mg per liter.
The average sulfite content for all measured bottles of wine is 80 mg per liter and that drops to about 40 mg per liter for organic wines. In terms of the standard 750 ml bottle we’re talking 60 mg/30 mg per bottle or about 10 mg/5mg per glass. Keep in mind that the human body itself produces about 1000 mg of sulfites per day! It’s with a high degree of confidence that I tell you that sulfites are probably NOT the villain if you get wine headaches!
Need more convincing….try munching on about six dried apricots, drinking a couple of back-to-back glasses of processed orange juice or having a huge fresh salad from a restaurant salad bar for lunch. If you don’t get a headache from any of these, then quit blaming sulfites for your wine headache! Dried packaged fruits and processed orange juice have preservative sulfites and nearly all restaurants utilize a keep fresh spray on fresh salad bar items that contains sulfites, all in concentrations comparable to, or higher than those found in the average bottle of wine.
O.K. That bursts your bubble….you thought you knew where to place the blame for your wine headache and now you’re back at square one. So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, that’s very hard to determine and the answer is probably different for different people. Tannins, histamines and seratonins are among many compounds that occur in wine that could possibly cause headaches. And, of course, let’s not forget that the alcohol content itself can play a role. The percentage of the population sensitive to alcohol is many times that sensitive to sulfites and headaches are not an uncommon reaction to alcohol sensitivity.
If your headaches are mainly due to red wine, histamine may be the likely suspect. If they occur mostly with white wine, it might be seratonin. The fact is that you have to do a little intensive detective work to discover the cause of YOUR wine headache. Note the kinds, types, even the origins of wines that cause your headaches and also the ones that don’t. Keep a log and build a database. Once you established a number of wines that do and don’t, it should be possible to establish a pattern of what’s present and what’s absent in the various wines in order to narrow down what you’re reacting to cause the headaches.
When the headaches are strong and severe, I always suggest to my inquirers that they discuss and share their reactions with their doctor. Wines are complex beverages with many compounds that mimic other compounds. It’s part of the reason we get so many different wonderful aromas and flavors in wine. It can also, however, be a source of reactions for all the hundreds of compounds people develop allergies and sensitivities to or have interactions with because of regular medications.
Remember, there are hundreds, even thousands, of possible choices for you in the world of wine. Don’t waste time with the ones you don’t enjoy or which have side effects and discover the ones that give you pleasure and satisfaction.
Here’s hoping you get to discover and enjoy a glass of wine that’s just right for you!