A comment on my last posting: “Is it true that local wines in Europe do not have sulfites? A friend who is allergic who is heading to Italy wants to know. “
Sulfites have become such a big, confusing wine issue that I think it’s worth dedicating a little more space to exploring them and answering the above question. So today’s entry will be all about sulfites. Woot woot! Come on people, I should be able feel your excitement. You know, this is actually a pretty juicy, controversial topic: argument, headaches, false information, national pride, bacteria! Okay, now that you’re buzzing with anticipation, here we go.
What the heck are sulfites and why do they put junk in my wine?
Sulfites or sulfur dioxide are a naturally occuring compound that has been used since ancient times as a cleanser and fruit preservative. Sulfites have antioxidant and anti-microbial properties that keep away bacteria and oxidation that could mess with the wine.
The Myth: Sulfites in red wine give you headaches.
The Truth: Red Wine Headache (an official syndrome) is not caused by sulfites in the wine. It’s usually due to other naturally occurring substances, like histamines, which can also cause a stuffy nose and rosy cheeks. Additionally, white wines , especially sweet whites, often have higher sulfite levels than red wines. So if your friend does not have a reaction to white wine, then he’ll know that it’s something in red wine, other than sulfites, that is causing the problem. Some people do have true sulfite allergies, but this is very rare and will cause an allergic reaction (wheezing, hives, asthmatic responses), rather than headache.
The Myth: European winemakers do not add sulfites.
The Truth: All wines contain sulfites, as they are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Winemakers will also put in “added sulfites” on top of this, which is the controversial part. While the US requires a “contains sulfites” warning label, many countries do not. So even though your bottle of French, Italian, Spanish, Chilean, etc. wine will not warn you that it contains added sulfites, it most likely does. In the US, organic wine cannot be made with added sulfites. As I mentioned in my previous post, it is unusual for a winery to want to go organic, because lack of added sulfites makes the wine extremely perishable and often gives it unusual aromas.
Concession: There hasn’t been tons of research on why some people get headaches after drinking wine. The best advice I can give is to keep trying until you find wines that don’t hurt. Perhaps try alternate styles or varietals. I’ve also heard that drinking a cup of black tea beforehand can inhibit the unpleasant response.
You know, sometimes love hurts.