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Why are there Sulfites in My Wine
The Truth About Sulfites


It happens all the time: The visit from the couple who are just back from Europe. They drank wine with every meal and and never once had a hangover or a headache. And they are just sure that it’s because American wines have sulfites and the European wines don’t just look at the label!

Sure enough, labels in Europe don’t say a word about sulfites. So why do ours? Plenty of products contain sulfites and don’t carry warnings. A snack-sized box of raisins contains 10 times the sulfites as a bottle of wine, and you would pick up more sulfites from a fast-food lunch than from an entire bottle of wine.

Why the warning on wine? Enlightened leadership. The late Senator Strom Thurmond, a legendary alcohol opponent, inserted the health warning label into the Drug Act of 1988 simply to do anything he could to make wine look dangerous. The fact is that all wine includes sulfites. Even if it is not added, the yeasts that ferment the wine produce it as a byproduct. Rarely does a week go by that I do not get a call for sulfite-free wines. The common complaint is that “the sulfites in red wine gives me headaches.” The truth is that the more delicate white wines have more sulfites than reds.

I find it hard to believe that so many people could be allergic to sulfites. Sulfite allergies are fairly rare, found in less than one half of one percent of the population. It is a serious medical problem that can not only be dangerous, but potentially fatal. I am sure that some of our medical customers could give us details, but I assume that when a visit to a salad bar or eating a hot dog could send you to the hospital, you have been warned about the sulfites in wine before you are old enough to drink it.

An allergist told me that many people have reactions to histamines or phenolics, but blame it on sulfites. Histamines are a common allergen that are found in the skins of red grapes, but in very low levels. Phenolics are natural chemical compounds found in grape skins, stems and seeds. Red wines have larger amounts of phenolics than white wines. (It has been suggested that people who are sensitive to histamines could find red wines more enjoyable if they took an antihistamine before drinking.)

Sulfite has three important functions in winemaking. First, it has antiseptic qualities that kill the wild yeasts and bacteria that are present on the fruit. Second it has anti-oxidative qualities that help protect wine from oxidation. And third, it destroys the enzyme that causes browning in the juice. Without it, our wine would be brown, taste like Sherry and be plagued by bacterial spoilage. Sulfur dioxide has been used in the winemaking process for thousands of years. There is evidence that the Romans used sulfur, and I am sure they learned it from the Greeks. In fact, I would venture a guess that the use of sulfur in wine making probably dates back to a village somewhere in Mesopotamia where they were stomping grapes when a smoldering chunk of brimstone from the local volcano landed in the vat. “Hmm, firestone make wine taste better, last longer!”

A few years ago I asked the winemaker from one of California’s largest wineries using organically-grown grapes why they didn’t go all the way and make organic wine. His reply was “I don’t make wine without sulfites. When I took the job, I made sure they knew that organic stopped at the winery door!” There are “organic” “sulfite-free” wines out there that use extreme methods to keep the wine from any exposure to oxygen before bottling and a few of them taste pretty good but still have extremely short shelf lives.

Scientists also say the headaches might be caused by yet another substance, probably something in the strains of yeast or bacteria found in red wine. Some, former sufferers were getting results from prostaglandin-inhibitors, namely Ibuprofen and Nuprin, as well as the weaker aspirin. Take them less than an hour before drinking and chances are no headache will develop. If you still wake up in the morning with a headache, you may be suffering from a medical condition known as a “hangover” — but that’s a topic for another day!

Read more about sulfite-free wines here.