By Maddison Pantlin
Imagine… you’re waking up from an entertaining night out. As the familiar mental fog clears, you suddenly remember all of the dancing, laughs, and scandalous behavior… and unfinished tacos in your fridge, score. Evidently, and not for the first time, you were convinced that a second, or third, or fourth bottle of slightly chilled summer Morgon is “never a bad idea.” Unfortunately, your days of pain-free drinking are long gone, and a killer headache is hampering your ability to move without whimpering this morning.
“Ugh, damn sulfites again.”
But are these simple, helpful molecules actually at the root of your suffering?
I am here to debunk all of your sulfite myths.
There is a huge negative stigma surrounding the words “contain sulfites.” People think it is the evil of the wine world. Endlessly searching for their sulfite-free wine, and telling anyone in their path about their allergies and headaches.
In reality? Sulfites are heroic. They are the Batman of wine. An underappreciated, silent protector. Try aging a bottle without them, and you’ll see what I mean.
So why do I have this undying love affair with sulfites? They are often critical in the vineyard and throughout the winemaking process. But, before we discuss the winemaking process…
What Are Sulfites?
By textbook definition, sulfites are compounds that contain the sulfite ion. Essentially, sulfur, sulfur dioxide, sulfurous acid, bisulfite ion and complexed sulfite. Sulfites are a naturally occurring chemical element that was discovered around 2000 B.C and has been used universally in wine since the 17th century. They can occur naturally and can also be created artificially, in small quantities around 10 mg/L, during fermentation.
Why Do We Use Sulfites 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.
First and foremost, I would like to make it very clear, that sulfites are most likely not the cause of your red wine headaches. There is a small percentage of people that do have a sulfite allergy (less than 5%), but this is usually reserved for people with severe asthma. They will experience asthma symptoms such as hay fever and hives WAY more likely than you would get a headache from the small number of sulfites in wine.
Wines will range from No Added SO2 (10 – 40 PPM) to about 350 PPM on the extreme end. 350 Parts Per Million?! This must be like an overdose on sulfites and why I react to wines, right?
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 PPM, and even strawberry jam contains more sulfites than most wines. Soda, french fries, and preserved foods all contain lots of 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’re not wheezing and breaking out in hives, it’s not the sulfites.
In fact, 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 of other countries like Australia to protect people with an allergy impacting less than 5% of the population.
Then why do I get Headaches from wine?
This section is full of nothing but truth bombs and real talks about the unspoken aspects 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 drink alcohol continuously. 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 color 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. Histamines and Tyramines are more prevalent in red wine and sparkling as a byproduct of extended fermentation.
However, these compounds are also present in many other foods such as sauerkraut, aged or processed meats, cheeses and even vegetables! As well as Coffee, fruit juices and soda, yet another element often consumed in our daily lives.
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 also drink white wines or drink lighter reds like Pinot Noir or Gamay since 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.
This is one of the more common sayings, and this actually has lots of truth to it. 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. Tannins have been known to alter serotonin levels which can lead to headaches. Some other common foods that contain tannin are chocolate, nuts, soy, and teas.
Home Test: An excellent 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. Again, this is not medical advice.
You can also avoid tannin by drinking lighter reds or wine lower in tannins such as Barbera, Dolcetto or Zinfandel. White wine or sparkling most often have less tannins as well.
So, unfortunately, alcohol is a reasonably strong diuretic. What does that mean? It’s 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 widespread.
Home Test: Other than consuming less, (that is always the last resort 🙂 ) one can drink more water during the day, in between wine glasses or drink wines lower in alcohol.
Sugar 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 their 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.
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, but it’s worth it in the long run
Another alternative is to drink higher quality wines. You do not need to spend $60 on a bottle to get quality. All I am saying is an extra $5 – $10 can make a big difference. 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 fantastic increase in taste and quality and most importantly, fewer headaches if we indulge responsibly.
If you’re still not sold on the functional properties of sulfites, there is an alternative. It is called Dimethyl Dicarbonate (DMDC) aka Velcorin. This product is actually poisonous for the first hour, it requires specialized training and a full set up of protective equipment. However, there is nothing traceable in the end if it is handled correctly. Which do you prefer, I think I’ll stick with the option that has been tested over the last 400 years thank you!
Life is rough sometimes, but 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.
Till next time, your devoted sulfite team player,