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Sulfites Give Me Headaches?

by David on January 25, 2007

Do sulfites give me headaches? No, but they sure make me cranky.

It happened again. I popped into the tasting room to get a bottle of water and overheard some people telling Jose, the Tasting Room Manager, that they “usually only drink French wine because it doesn’t have any sulfites so they don’t get headaches from it”. Jose and I exchanged glances and smiled wearily. We both knew he had a good 10 minutes ahead of him to tactfully try to set them straight, and that they probably still wouldn’t believe him. He’d much rather talk about the vineyard source that gives the wine that nice anise aroma or help them decide where to have lunch. I had to fight my knee-jerk irritation. What I really wanted to do was scream “Who keeps perpetuating these myths???!!!” It was better for me to take my water and leave. ;)

Two things wrong with their statement:

1. All wines have sulfites regardless of country of origin.
2. Sulfites don’t give you headaches.

Now, let me back up my statements with facts from a much better source than my own humble self.

Regarding point 1, Andrew Waterhouse of the University of California at Davis, one of the best wine schools in the world, stated that European and American wines both tend to average about 80 parts per million (ppm) total sulfur, some more, some less.

Regarding item 2, the same Andrew Waterhouse stated unequivocally that there’s absolutely no indication that sulfites cause headaches. He suggests you eat some colorful dried fruit to put this to the test. The bright color testifies that the fruit has been treated with a hefty dose of sulfur, far, far above 80 ppm. If you don’t react to that, you don’t have a problem with sulfur. He even invited people to write to him if they believe they have compelling evidence that their headaches are caused by sulfur.

Can you buy wine with no added sulfites? Yes, you can, from any country including the US and its absence will usually be screaming at you from the label. But that doesn’t mean that the wine doesn’t contain sulfites. Sulfur is a by-product of the fermentation, albeit a small one, but all wines contain at least a few parts per million.

Wines with no added sulfites are difficult to come by because the vast majority of winemakers, including those who farm organically, find that their wine isn’t very good if they don’t add small amounts. Of course, we’d all like to make wine without adding the sulfur but so far we’re just not technically sophisticated enough to pull it off. The wine tends to have a short shelf life without it. Of course, there are those who disagree. Best way to hunt down some of these no-added-sulfite wines is online. Give ‘em a try!

Do all countries add sulfur? Absolutely, and the Europeans were the first to figure out that it’s a smart thing to do. Sulfur and wine have been partners in winemaking since at least Roman times – first as part of the seal, then as a barrel purifying agent and later as an outright additive.

Sulfur levels are generally lower now than they were a few decades ago because, with modern sanitation methods and winemaking techniques, we can get away with less. Typically, a bottle of Goosecross wine contains about 30 ppm at bottling time. The legal limit in the US is 350. Dried fruit may contain over 1000 parts ppm.

To be fair to this couple who were talking to Jose, it’s reasonable to assume that they think American wine is alone in adding sulfur because, up to very recently, America had a labeling requirement that European wines didn’t: if the wine contains 10 ppm or more, a warning must appear on the label regardless of where it was made. I’m happy to say that any wines made or sold in the EU, bottled after 11/25/2005, will have the same warning. The regulation is the same as that of the US. So, it means that when you go shopping for wine anywhere in the EU, you should see the warning on most whites and young reds by now. Austalia has a similar requirement. When you buy wine in Melbourne, you’ll see a reference to “preservative 220.”

I don’t like being fair when I feel so cranky. Buzzing around the internet to see what is said on the subject, there’s lots of good information, but misinformation also abounds. Especially about the headache thing. So, we can’t be cranky. We have to be fair and patient and explain. By the time we’ve explained it to every wine drinker on the planet you know what? They’ll figure out how to make good wine without adding sulfites!

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