Food & Wine Thursdays: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sulfites But Still Won’t Believe Anyway

You’re not allergic to sulfites.

Well, probably not.

For some reason the sulfite question has popped up in the wine world a lot recently. I think it’s a combination of an increased interest in organic products in general coupled with an insurgent popularity of so-called “natural wine” amongst the vino cognoscenti. Despite copious writings (including by me) on the virtually non-existent health risks of sulfites, a large chunk of the population either: still doesn’t know about it; doesn’t believe it; or chooses to remain willfully ignorant out of some misguided organic fervor.

So, although the topic has been talked to death already, here it is again.

Here are the facts:

  1. Various forms of sulfur are used as a preservative and stabilizer in wine making, as well as in other foods, including most dried fruits. It’s also sometimes used in the vineyard as a natural pest deterrent and fungicide.
  2. Sulfites have been deliberately used as a preservative in wine making for something like 1000 years and were inadvertently used at least as far back as the Ancient Romans, who noticed that wine stored in amphorae that had been dried with lamps or fires between uses spoiled less often, encouraging the practice.
  3. Generally speaking, a bottle of wine has fewer sulfites then a two ounce serving of dried apricots.
  4. Although a sulfite allergy exists, it is a very rare and specific anaphylactic allergy resulting in breathing difficulty, swelling and hives, not headaches or nausea.
  5. Generally speaking, white wine has more sulfites than red wine since red wine has additional natural preservatives like tannins from the grape skins so less sulfur needs to be added.
  6. Sulfites are a natural part of the wine making process. Even if you add no additional sulfites, they will still be present in measurable quantities in wine. During fermentation, yeasts convert the natural sulfur in wine (in the form of sulfates) into sulfites. This is also why it is virtually impossible to have a USDA Organic wine since even without adding a single drop of sulfites to a wine, almost all wines will have more than 10ppm of sulfites, which is the upper threshold allowed for organic wines.
  7. The human body produces ten times more sulfites in a day than are found in one liter of a typical wine.

In my past experiences as a waiter and wine retailer and in my current career as a wholesaler I’ve encountered exactly one person with a legitimate sulfite allergy. White wines and lighter red wines gave him hives. He still drank red wine. I’ve encountered numerous people who claimed to have a sulfite allergy but they failed the basic Lemon test because:

  1. Headache was the primary or sole symptom they mentioned.
  2. Invariably, symptoms were worse with red wine than white wine.
  3. They were shrill and annoying.

There are innumerable things in wine that cause headache including, of course, alcohol. Red wine contains numerous histamines and there is a general scientific consensus that there is something in many red wines that causes headache in certain individuals but there is no clear idea what that is yet or even if it is native to red wine or to human DNA. Oak barrels also impart histamines and other compounds that add to the cocktail of chemicals that produces adverse reactions from wine consumption.

Cheap, factory-farmed wine has a lot more shit in it than small production “farm” wine or “natural” wine. It could have citric acid, oak chips, concentrated grape juice and chemical preservatives above and beyond sulfur. There are nights where I consume an entire bottle (or more) of good wine and feel fine in the morning and other instances where I’ll have a glass or two of cheap wine at a party and get a splitting headache. I also am more likely to get a headache from the higher alcohol extended maceration red wines that have recently been the fashion in California wine making than from a lighter red wine from Burgundy or the Willamette Valley.

I believe there is a definitive advantage, in terms of general post-drinking feeling crapiness, to drinking sustainably farmed, small-production wine that is as natural as it needs to be. But that advantage has nothing to do with the presence or absence of sulfites. The fact is, good attentive wine makers use only as much sulfur as necessary to achieve consistency and prevent spoilage, that’s it. And again, except for those with an allergy, sulfites are completely safe by every scientific measure I’ve read.

As a commenter on the Huffington Post astutely pointed out, with all this pointless aversion to a simple, natural and safe preservative like sulfur it’s funny that we seem to forget that, of all the chemicals in wine to be wary of, the most dangerous by far is that potent poison alcohol.

(Please note, I’m not a scientist but merely a curious individual. I did, however, consult a scientist: Tom Mansell, PhD candidate in chemistry at Cornell and publisher of the wine and science journal Ithacork. I also consulted the excellent article “Sulfites in Wine” by UC Davis Professor Andrew Waterhouse.)

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About David D.

I'm a wine professional. Like a real one who makes most of his living in wine and have for most of my adult life. I also write, but you can see that.
This entry was posted in Dispatches From Academia, Food and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Food & Wine Thursdays: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sulfites But Still Won’t Believe Anyway

  1. Pingback: Everything You Wanted to Know About Sulfites But Still Won’t Believe Anyway « mouthfeelmusings

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