Written By: John Hannum
One of the most misunderstood concepts in the wine industry is the concept of sulfites; how they are used in making wine and the effect they have on the human body. I wish I had a nickel for every time someone asks for a sulfite free wine, or where is your sulfite free wine section, or even the organic section because they think they must be sulfite free wines. This is surely a conundrum, driving this poor wine professional to drink (not that I need much encouragement).
To begin with, there are no naturally occurring sulfite free wines. None. Sulfites in wine are natural occurring and are a byproduct of the fermentation process, the conversion of sugar to alcohol by yeast. You might be surprised to know that your body makes sulfites as a byproduct of breathing (1000 milligrams per day). Wine makers also add sulfites in the wine making process to disinfect barrels and to deter wine from oxidation and spoilage. Sulfite free wines can be unstable, prone to turning into vinegar or spoiling from bacteria on the grape skins, or even turning brown through oxidation. I’m not sure why sulfur in wines has such a bad reputation, because wine with sulfites are bright in color, taste fresh and alive with fruit and are just better tasting wines.
So why is there a warning label on the back of wines stating that they contain sulfites? The FDA in 1987, in response to a law suit brought on by a heavy asthmatic, required that wines containing more than 10 parts per million of sulfites be labeled as containing sulfites. Wines can legally contain up to 350 PPM of sulfites, but most wines with added sulfites contain between 25 – 150 PPM. The fermentation process of wine alone gives levels between 6 and 40 PPM of sulfites. So the concept of sulfite free wine is not possible. The term low sulfite or no sulfite added is often confused or substituted for the concept of sulfite free wine.
Are sulfites bad for you? Let me preface this by saying I am not a doctor, nor do I portray one on television. But the facts are that less than 1% of population shows any response to sulfites at all. Less than 1 out of 10,000 have reactions that would affect their health. Sulfites are everywhere, including spinach salads, any prepackaged salads, potato chips, raisins, dried apricots, hot dogs, bacon, pickles, olives, jams, maple syrup, pizza, shellfish, canned tuna, Italian grinders and much, much more. All of these examples contain more sulfites then wine. If you need to know what to look out for, allergic reactions to sulfites include hives, respiratory problems, swelling or gastrointestinal discomfort. Strange as it may seem, headaches are not a reaction to sulfites.
So what causes the dreaded RWH, or red wine headache? Truth is, no one knows. It could be a number of red wine compounds that cause a headache, but sulfites are not likely one of them. The most common culprits of headaches in red wines are histamines, found in abundance in the skins of red grapes. Could it also be a wood allergy or even the alcohol in the wine? If you drink white wines because red wines give you headaches, then the issue is not sulfites. White wines have more sulfites then red wines to keep them brighter and fresher. Also, the higher alcohol content in red wines have less of a need for attributes of sulfites due to them being generally higher in alcohol and tannins, also preservatives. Red wines are a trigger for migraines, but no one seems to know why, nor can they pinpoint sulfites as a cause for migraines.
People assume that organic wines must have no sulfites; after all they are naturally made wines. Truth is no, because sulfur is naturally occurring in nature, organic wines have just as much sulfites in them as non-organic wines. Organic wines are actually wines that are made from organically grown grapes. The regulations for organic wines have a lot to do with the soils that they are grown in and insecticides and fertilizers that they are allowed to use, but has nothing to do with how the wine is made. Sulfur is allowed to be used in the fields in growing organic grapes rather than more aggressive artificial chemical treatments for fungus and insects. But I digress.
The point I am trying to get across is that sulfites do not deserve the bad reputation that many of my customers are trying to give it. Are people allergic to sulfites? Yes, less than 1%. Do sulfites cause headaches? No. Are sulfites unhealthy? I wouldn’t eat a bowl of it, nor would I eat a bowl of salt, but it is a natural occurring element that is all around and even your body produces it. The end result is sulfites perform a necessary function in wine to make it cleaner and better tasting. At the end of the day isn’t that what’s really important?
In my humble opinion.