Archive for March, 2015


Wine Allergies: Don’t Blame Sulfites


I’m often asked about the role of sulfites in wine. “I don’t drink wine, especially red, because sulfites give me terrific headaches,” is the most common complaint. Let’s see if I can straighten out the myth.

First, it’s necessary to identify the alleged culprit. Winemakers use sulfur dioxide alone or together with potassium bisulfite to protect wine. Sulfites are essentially organic salts produced as a by-product of the fermentation process that occur in wine. Sulfites play an important role in combatting oxidation and stabilizing wine, especially whites that are more fragile than reds. Sometimes white wines contain more sulfites than their more full-bodied red cousins.

They are so effective that many producers use it in a variety of common food products, like canned tuna fish and potato chips, ingested without the usual headache complaints. Sulfites also occur naturally in black tea.

Medical studies indicate that very few people, with the exception of asthmatics, actually suffer from an allergic reaction to sulfites. So what then are the culprits in wine that cause headache distress? Can it be additional sugars added to inexpensive still and sparkling wines by some winemakers to boost flavors? Perhaps headaches are related to tannins in red wine, or to overindulgence and excessive drinking. Then again, the cause may be histamines found in foods that are aged, like certain wines, cheeses, and dried meats.

Once the blame falls on sulfites, it’s hard to convince people other causes should be blamed. Some wine drinkers turn to NSA (no sulfites added) wines. Lettie Teague, The Wall Street Journal’s wine guru, tried three NSA wines and noted they were “devoid of any character or flavor … with a flat, tinny finish… tasting like old apple cider and smelling oxidized.” (It’s hard to miss the odor of oxidized wine.) It’s impossible to condemn all NSA wines on the basis of three samples, but the fact that winemakers consistently find sulfites to be a valuable contributor to maintaining wine quality is an indisputable argument.

But here are several other reasons for headaches.

  1. Personally, I find high alcohol wines, which became a fad in recent vintages, to provoke my headaches.
  2. Excessive drinking.
  3. Drinking without food is a path to headaches.
  4. Cheap wines, still or sparkling, with added sugars to boost the alcohol content.
  5. Tannins in red wines may be the true offender.

So what to do?

  1. Eat before drinking. It’s an excellent rule with regard to wine or spirits.
  2. Stay hydrated to help process both alcohol and sugar.
  3. Avoid cheaper wines. It doesn’t mean you have to indulge in wines of stratospheric prices.
  4. Always check the percent of alcohol in small print on the front or back label to make sure it’s at an appropriate level, between 12% to 14%. Assiduously avoid those that hover around 16% or higher. Some winemakers, like Napa Valley’s Cathy Corison famous for her Cabernet sauvignons, pick early to avoid high alcohol levels. The longer the grapes ripen on the vines, the higher their sugar content. Sugar converts to alcohol. Ergo, a higher alcohol level that affects the taste of wine, playing down fruit flavors and other desirable elements in quality wine, leaving a burning sensation on the tongue.
  5. Remember Aristotle’s advice. Moderation should be the watchword of life. It’s especially valid in regard to drinking alcoholic beverages.
  6. Limit the amount of wine to a glass or two as the best way to avoid headaches.