The Truth About Sulfites

You’re waking up from a good night out. There were laughs and scandalous behaviour. You are now faced with a killer headache and you immediately assume it’s the sulfites in the copious amounts of glasses you drank last night. Is it really though? I am here to debunk all your sulfite myths. There is so much bad connotation around this word “contain sulfites”people think it is the evil of the wine world. Endlessly searching for their sulfite-free wine, telling anyone in their path about their allergies and headaches.

Reality? It is your silent hero. The Robin Hood of wine. Everything you want in your bottle, especially those that have a desire to age any bottle.

So why do I have this undying love affair with sulfites? They are extremely important to the winemaking process and in the vineyard. I will write about that process but first,

What Are Sulfites?

By textbook definition, sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion. Essentially, sulphur, sulphur dioxide, sulphurous acid, bisulfite ion and complexed sulfite. We could be here all night listing various sulfite compounds and neither one of us would understand. Most importantly, it is a naturally occurring chemical element that’s been around since 2000 B.C and used universally in wine since the 17th century. It is a substance that can naturally occur and/or artificially such as by yeast during fermentation, small quantities around 10 mg/L is produced.

Why Are There Sulfites and Why Do We Use Them In Wine?

There are four main reasons:

  • Antioxidant: Prevents oxygenation by combining with oxygen and removing it before any damage can be done.
  • Antiseptic: Kills off unwanted bacteria and spoilage yeasts.
  • Prevents second fermentation in the bottle. It can kill off indigenous yeasts, which tend to be weaker than cultivated yeasts.
  • Preserves the wine – critical for anyone who desires to age their wine.

I would like to make it very clear, that sulfites are most likely notthe cause of your red wine headaches. There is a small percentage of people that have a sulfite allergy (less than 5%) but this is usually reserved for people with bad asthma and will experience asthma symptoms such as hay fever and hives WAY more likely that you would a headache.

Wines will range from No Added SO2(10 – 40 PPM) to about 350 PPM on the extreme end. 350 Parts Per Million?! Thismustbe like an overdose on sulfites and why I react to wines.

Wine Myth Buster: No way Jose.

Wine is on the low end of the spectrum for sulfites in consumable products. Dried fruit is over 3000 PPMto something like strawberry jam that still contains more sulfites than most wines. Pop, french fries, preserved foods all contain more sulfites. Nuts, packaged soups, juices, processed meats all contain anywhere from 300 – 2000 PPM. The list goes on and on and if you think you have a sulfite allergy, start eating dried fruit and let me know how you feel after. If you feel fine, it’s not the sulfites. They are a super common food additive and not the root of all evil.

Sidenote: The legal requirement to list “Contains Sulfites” only exists in North America and a couple other countries like Australia. Why? Because there are people with an allergy impacting less than 5% worldwide.

Why do I get Headaches?

This is probably the best part. This section is full of nothing but truth bombs and really talks about the unspoken things of wine. Like the fact that alcohol and our bodies do not harmonize together. They were not created to be equals. We have to train our bodies to continuously drink it. No one likes to admit that.

In winemaking, on the dark side of the moon, there is an abundance of chemicals that can be used in the process. It is not always just grapes and yeast creating this magical juice (part of the reason why you should seek out boutique wineries and avoid commercial wineries). Nowadays, we can alter everything from sweetness to colour to alcohol. Every person will react to something different and it will vary with different wines. Very often, it won’t be one single culprit either.

Here are Some Wine Truths Bombs:

Histamines and Tyramines

These are compounds that are known to trigger allergic reactions and headaches. More prevalent in red wine and sparkling as being a byproduct of a long fermentation.

However, these compounds are present in many other foods such as sauerkraut, aged or processed meats, cheeses and even vegetables! Coffee, fruit juices and pop, yet another thing we could list quite a few consumable products on. Nothing is what it seems.

If you believe this is what is causing your headaches, you can go on a histamine/tyramine-restricted diet. There is quite a few if you google them. You can also talk to your doctor and determine if an antihistamine could be the solution. You can drink white wines or drink lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay as they usually don’t undergo a very long fermentation. Note: This is not medical advice, please don’t pop an antihistamine before your open your bottle of Bordeaux without asking your doctor first.

Tannins

This is one of the more common sayings and this actually has lots of truth to it. Tannins can cause headaches. These sometimes overwhelming characters of wine, come from grape skins, seeds and stems. They can also be sourced from non-grape sources like barrels and oak chips. They cause headaches because they have been known to alter serotonin levels which can lead to headaches. Some other common foods are chocolate, nuts, soy and teas.

Home Test: A good way to figure out if it is tannins that are affecting you, over steep a black tea and it will become very tannic. Monitor your reaction.

Another way to avoid this, drink lighter reds or wine lower in tannins such as Barbera, Dolcetto or Zinfandel. White wine or sparkling has zero tannins.

Alcohol

So, unfortunately, this is considered to be a fairly strong diuretic. What does that mean?  A fancy term for makes you pee a lot and become dehydrated. Dehydration leads to headaches and dizziness.

I don’t want to be ruining alcohol for anyone but alcohol sensitivities, intolerances and allergies are very common – in a study done by the Johannesburg University of 950 people, 25% had symptoms. It’s probably something we will never admit too, but it is very common.

Home Test:Other than consuming less, (that is the last resort) one can drink more water during the day, in between wine glasses or drink wines lower in alcohol.

Sugar

This causes dehydration, blood sugar and insulin level too spike, excessive thirst and makes you crave carbs and sweets. This really is the silent killer in wine as most people don’t understand how much sugar is in there wine. Most off-dry to sweet wines contain anywhere from 10g/L to 220g/L = 2 to 5 teaspoons PER 5 OZ Glass! They certainly don’t pour them in restaurants and at home, no one’s watching as the bottle gets to the end.

Examples: Apothic Red 16g/L Jam Jar 56g/L Yellowtail Big Bold Red 18g/L

Solution? Drink dry wines! Some Italian Pinot Grigios and Cabernet Sauvignons can be as little as 1 gram per serving. Sometimes this takes some palette training to learn to appreciate bone-dry wines.

Another alternative is to drink wines higher in quality. You do not need to spend $60 on a bottle to get quality. All I am saying is an extra $5 – $10 can really show a difference as they use better grapes and don’t have to rely on the sugar for fruitiness. Instead of Apothic Red, you add an extra couple dollars and can branch off into better wines like Josh Cellars or Tom Gore. Start investing in Michael David’s Freakshow line. Minimal differences on the wallet yet amazing increase in taste and quality and most importantly, fewer headaches if we indulge responsibly.

If you’re still not sold on the good properties of sulfites, there is something else that you can use. It is called Dimethyl Dicarbonate (DMDC) aka Velcorin. This product is actually poisonous for the first hour, it requires special training and a full set up of protective equipment. However, there is nothing traceable in the end. What is better, sulfites or this?

Life is rough sometimes, wine doesn’t need to be. Do not blame sulfites, they are not the enemy. All I ask is you enjoy your sulfite containing wine with pleasure and knowledge these days

Maddison Pantlin is a WSET Diploma student who has worked grape harvests around the world.