Food & Wine Thursdays: Because You Need The Reminder – Sulfites Revisited!

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.

Here are the facts:

  1. Various forms of sulfur have been used as a preservative and stabilizer in wine making, as well as in other foods, including most dried fruits, for a very long time. It’s also sometimes used in the vineyard, orchard and garden 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 Ancient Rome. Romans noticed that wine stored in amphorae that had been dried with lamps or fires between uses spoiled less often.
  3. Generally speaking, an entire bottle of wine has fewer sulfites than 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–such as 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 even without adding a single drop of sulfites to a wine. Except by random fluke, all wines will have more than 10 parts per million (ppm) 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 more tannic red wines. I have, however, encountered numerous people who claimed to have a sulfite allergy but 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 with white wine.
  3. They were uncompromisingly certain that sulfites were the issue and would not consider any other sources.

There are innumerable things in wine that cause headache including, of course, alcohol. Red wine contains numerous histamines and there is a general 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 in wine that produces adverse reactions.

Cheap, factory-farmed wine has a lot more stuff 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 responsibly-produced wine and feel fine in the morning and other instances where I’ll have a glass or two of factory-farmed wine and get a splitting headache.

Unfortunately, there have been exaggerated assertions from anti-sulfur activists published on the Huffington Post and other venues in the past, and that doesn’t help. If most wines had naturally occurring sulfites of 0-5 ppm, there would be a lot more organic wine out there and more responsible grape growers could trade on the organic name. But the no sulfite-added wines that I’ve worked with generally have around 15-30 ppm and it is inconsistent year to year since small growers don’t have the resources to control and combat free floating sulfur that could blow in from neighboring vineyards.

I believe there is a definitive advantage, in terms of feeling crappy post-drinking, to sipping 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. 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 a past post of mine astutely pointed out, with all this pointed discussion about 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: Dr. Tom Mansell, PhD candidate in chemistry at Cornell University and publisher of the wine and science journal Ithacork. I also consulted the excellent article “Sulfites in Wine” by UC Davis Professor Andrew Waterhouse.)

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.
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3 Responses to Food & Wine Thursdays: Because You Need The Reminder – Sulfites Revisited!

  1. Mana says:

    One of my friends doesn’t have any complaints about the sulfites but is allergic to tannins so he can’t drink any of the red wines he’s tried. Any suggestions for him?

    • David D. says:

      In addition to, of course, white wine which has little to no tannin, your friend should look for red wine made from thin-skinned grapes. Since tannin comes from grape skin and grape stems, the thicker the skins and the longer the maceration (the time that the grape juice is in contact with the grape skins) the more tannin is extracted into the juice. These include grapes like Gamay, found in Beaujolais wine from France as well as some red wines from France’s Loire Valley, many of the wines from Alto Adige in Northeastern Italy, and Pinot Noir from cooler parts of the world, including Germany, Austria, Coastal California, and Oregon. Other thin-skinned grapes include Grenache, Sangiovese, and Zinfandel–however much of the tannin content will depend upon how ripe the grapes are and how long the maceration was. Generally speaking, the lighter the color of the wine, the fewer tannins in the wine.

      Generally speaking, your friend will also want to look for imported wines, as these are less likely to have additives made from concentrated grape products, and especially steer clear from the cheapest of the cheap red wines. One of the more common additives to inexpensive wine is powdered grape tannin, which is added to cheaply made bulk wine to give a semblance of the structure you get from a higher quality wine without the time and attention necessary for an actual extended maceration.

      I hope that helps. Ask a knowledgeable wine shop employee for recommendations too. Explain that your friend is very sensitive to tannins but loves red wine and is looking for light-to-medium bodied reds that are light and fruity.

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