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Q: Sulfites/California Wine/Headaches

by David on February 7, 2010

Question from Susan: We have a friend who claims that she can only drink French reds because California reds have more nitrates/nitrites and give her headaches. Is this possible or is it a bit of wine snobbery?

Reply: Hi, Susan! Thanks for writing! I think your friend must have meant sulfites rather than nitrites. I’m pretty confident that nitrites aren’t a significant part of the wine picture (although they’re found in water, so…). They’re used to preserve hot dogs and salami and stuff like that. The sulfite question comes up pretty frequently.

It’s hard to blame her for thinking that French wine doesn’t have sulfites because, up to quite recently, only the US and Australia required the sulfite warning on the label. If you vacationed in Paris and drank French wine, a few years back, you wouldn’t have seen the warning. But, now you would (unless it’s an old vintage) and this applies to all the wine-producing countries in the European Union.

The law is very similar to the American one and enologists have determined that a bottle of French or California wine is likely to have around 80 parts per million. Any variation is more from brand to brand than country to country. Goosecross wine usually leaves here at around 30-35 ppm.

Sulfites, or sulfur, have been used to preserve wine for centuries. Even in Roman times it was used to help create a seal for the container. Without a little sulfur the wine loses its fruit and has a short shelf life. Fortunately, if the wine spoils it’s not harmful, but it’s not much fun to drink, either, which is why sulfur is still in use. Sulfites turn up in a lot of foods, too, especially dried fruit.

At this very moment, enologists are working to try to eliminate the need for sulfur. The success, so far, is by way of reducing it. Today’s wine has much lower sulfur levels than wine did as recently as 50 or 60 years ago.

This isn’t to say that you can’t buy wine that doesn’t have added sulfites. The “Organic Wine” designation prohibits sulfur additions to wine, as opposed to “organically grown”, which only refers to the farming (and even there, elemental sulfur application to the vines is permitted to keep mildew under control). The reason you don’t see very many “organic wines” is that they usually don’t taste very good. I should add that organic wine may still contain sulfites because they’re a by-product of the fermentation. The level, in that case, is extremely low.

As to the headaches, chemists keep telling us that sulfites don’t cause headaches, but statements like that can set off a maelstrom of heated opposition from those who believe otherwise. Your friend might try eating some brightly colored dried fruit to see if that causes a headache. If not, something other than sulfur is the cause. California wine is quite often higher in alcohol than French wine, due to climatic differences, so that’s the more likely culprit.

I hope that puts your debate to rest! May you and your friends enjoy wine, whatever its nationality, in good health! Cheers! Nancy

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