The sulfites in wine give me a headache myth
This topic comes up at nearly every tasting or class that I do. Many people are convinced that sulfites are responsible for headaches and they point to the “Contains Sulfites” warning on labels as proof. Fortunately it is not true.
Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation so technically no wine can be sulfite free. Many winemakers add sulfites to their wine because it prevents oxidation and kills bacteria. Sulfur and its compounds have been used in wine grape growing and winemaking since the Roman times. Sulfites make wine more stable and increase its shelf life. There is a very small group (less than 1% of the population) that has true sulfite allergies. For those unlucky to have this sensitivity a reaction to sulfites can cause asthma-like symptoms, hives, or swelling. Headaches are not one of the symptoms. So if you have not experienced any of these symptoms, congratulations! You are not allergic to sulfites.
Since 1988, all wine sold in the US was required to have a sulfite warning on the label. Curiously, there are many other food and drink items that contain higher levels of sulfites than wine that are not required to post a warning on the package. Dried fruits contain significantly more sulfites than wine but require no warnings. The list of foods and drinks that contain sulfites is very long and includes, bacon, pickles, raisins, molasses, frozen potatoes and beer to name a few. I saw a “contains sulfites” note on shrimp at my local supermarket. Sulfites are often added to medications for their anti-oxidant properties.
As a home winemaker I use small amounts in my wine to protect it. I try to put in as little as possible. I respect winemakers that are cutting back on the use of sulfites. Wine can be made with no sulfites added (NSA) but there are some risks. I have had some NSA wines that were old well before their time. I have also had some NSA wines that were fresh and expressive. It requires completely healthy grapes, extreme sanitation during winemaking and the right techniques. Most large scale producers will not take a chance on bottling wine that has not had some sulfite added. Most NSA wines are not produced in large quantities but they do exist. If you are one of the unfortunate few that are allergic to sulfites, speak to your doctor about trying a wine that has no sulfites added to it.
So the next time you hear someone tell you how sulfites give them a headache just smile to yourself and have another sip of wine.