Wine 101 - Sulfites in Wine. Do You Care?

Are sulfites responsible for red wine allergies?

Last year, when I started this blog, my intent was to share my impressions of the best wines Washington wineries had to offer. However, the more involved I become with the Washington wine industry, the more I learn how big the world of wine is. It’s bigger than I realized. Sometimes I learn by experience, reading (my library is growing) and other times I learn out of social embarrassment.

Have you ever paid much attention to the “Contains Sulfites” on the label of a bottle of wine? Neither had I and I have bought, sold and poured many, many bottles. Occasionally, someone passing through the Columbia valley would remark to me, "I only drink white wine, because I'm allergic to sulfites in red wine." My typical response was to smile and nod my head, I did not know any better to correct them, and I did not care. This year I began to care.

It was the month of May and I was having a great time championing Washington wines – the superior quality of our wines and so many varietals, and we have a perfect climate... I was in mid conversation with a “wine tourist” passing through the area, who had many questions about this region. Ah, I was in my element. Then she steered the conversation over to sulfites in wine… “What’s that? Hmm, I’m not sure.” And finally, “I guess I don’t know.” My wine knowledge was lacking and this “wine tourist” seemed to enjoy grilling me on a topic I had neglected. Ouch, that was not fun. I decided that day to do my "homework" and find out about sulfites in wine. Now I’m sharing that information with you. This post is a bit lengthy, but the topic merits it.

From my research on sulfites, I’ve gleaned that the wine industry has for years, attempted to deal with the misconception that sulfites are the cause of red wine allergies. Wine consumers have learned to blame their red wine allergies on sulfites and ignorance has perpetuated this fallacy. While I'm not a doctor or a chemist, I'll try to address the issue of sulfites in red and white wine as well as the related topic of red wine allergies. Reference links are at the bottom of this post as well as information on Organic wine and NSA wine. Hopefully, you’ll emerge a bit more knowledgeable about sulfites in wine. And you’ll be better prepared for inquisitive customers.

What are Sulfites and why are they in Wine?
SO2 (sulfur dioxide), commonly known as sulfites, are added in small quantities to most wines. Sulfites are added to both red and white wine to help prevent organisms from growing in the wine. The added sulfites allow the wine to last longer. Historically, the Egyptians, Greeks and Romans also used sulfites, (such as sulfur candles) to sterilize wine barrels and amphorae. But do you have to add sulfites to wine? Yes. If sulfites were not added, the wine would spoil within months and become vinegar. This is why you should drink NSA (no sulfites added) wines within 18 months of bottling.


Even though sulfur dioxide is typically added to wine, yeast naturally produces sulfites during fermentation. "...even if no sulfur dioxide is added to wine, fermenting yeasts will produce SO2 from the naturally occurring inorganic sulfates in all grape juices. ...it is impossible for any wine to be completely free of sulfur dioxide." Roger Boulton, Ph.D, University of California at Davis, Department of Viticulture and Enology.

Sulfites have been used around the world for centuries to:
· Inhibit oxidation of light-colored fruits and vegetables.
· Prevent black spot on shrimp and lobster.
· Discourage bacterial growth as wine ferments.
· Condition dough.
· Bleach food starches.
· Maintain the stability and potency of some medications.

The Sulfite Sensitive
You may have a friend who claims they are allergic to the sulfites in red wine. If your friend is allergic to red wine, is it because red wine really has more sulfites in it than white wine? Some people have genuine allergic reactions to red wine. A few people have always had allergic reactions to red wine (symptoms may include headaches, migraines or flushing) and some (the horror) developed allergies to red wine later in life. But are these allergies a reaction to the sulfites? Are there truly sulfite sensitive individuals?

Allergic to Sulfites
According to the FDA, there are people who are allergic to sulfites, but this is a very small subset of the population. The FDA estimates that 1 in 100 is sulfite sensitive, but for the 10% who are asthmatic, up to 5% are at risk of sulfite sensitivity. Of those, the ones with the most severe reactions are reported as steroid-dependent and are taking drugs such as prednisone or methylprednisolone. See: William Bincoletto, Red Wine Headache vs. Sulfite Allergy.

How do you know if you are sulfite sensitive? Consult a physician. However, one suggestion I've read of, to see if you are allergic to sulfites, CONSULT A PHYSICIAN FIRST, is to eat a few dried apricots (the bright orange ones) and see if you have an allergic reaction afterwards, such as a bad headache (a two ounce serving of dried apricots should contain about 112 mg sulfites - more than the typical bottle of wine). As mentioned above, sulfites seem to be a problem mainly for asthmatics, according to the FDA, about 500,000 asthmatics in the U.S. are sulfite sensitive.

How Much Sulfite is in Wine?
So how much sulfite is in wine? According to my research, a typical glass of red wine has about 10mg of SO2, with slightly higher amounts in white. See: A.T. Bakalinsky, Sulfites, Wine and Health, Wine in Context: Nutrition, Physiology, Policy, A.L. Waterhouse and R.M. Rantz, Eds. American Society for Enology and Viticulture, Davis 1996. This means that white wine may have more sulfites in a glass than red wine has. This also means that sulfites in red wine are most likely not the cause of red wine allergies. So if sulfites are not the cause of red wine allergies, what is causing the bad reactions?

Red Wine Allergies – The Other Culprits
As noted above, a glass of white wine can have more sulfites than a glass of red wine; therefore, there must be something else causing red wine allergies. Let me re-phrase that. If you drink white wine and cannot drink red wine, then what is causing your red wine allergies? What is in a glass of red wine?

Red wine is a complex mix of chemicals, including: sugars, alcohols, aldehydes, esters, acids, keytones, flavonoids, sulfites, tannins/polyphenols, histamines, etc... Therefore, it can be difficult to single out one specific cause for red wine allergies and hence the probable reason for falsely accusing sulfites. After all, “Contains Sulfites” is on every wine label as a warning, just as every pack of cigarettes has a cautionary warning about smoking cigarettes.

Tannins - Tannins are also a wine preservative present in red wine. Red wine tannins come from the grape skins, pips and wood; tannins are a type of acid which dry out your mouth similar to tannins in black teas. Tannin is what allows a good red wine to develop a great taste over time. The Harvard Health Letter sites experiments where, "...tannins cause the release of serotonin...serotonin can cause headaches..." Some contradictory data disputes this causal relationship (are you also allergic to black tea and chocolate?).

Histamines - Histamines are 20 - 200% higher in red wine than in white wine. People allergic to histamines are deficient in a certain enzyme and combined with alcohol, may cause headaches. Some studies contradict this causal relation ship, Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, February 2001.

Tackling Red Wine Allergies
If you suffer from red wine allergies, but still insist on drinking red wine, then some in the industry suggest experimenting with different wines from different wineries.

1. Try different brands, different varietals, and different countries of origin. Try half a glass of red wine - if you are allergic, it will give you a headache within 15 minutes. Don't over-indulge, keep with one style of wine, but drink no more than two glasses. Please note that a hangover is not an allergic reaction.

2. If red wine induces a headache or a flush response, try drinking a cup of black tea before you drink the wine. Quercetin, a bioflavonoid found in black tea, helps to inhibit the headache/flush response (an inflammatory effect from histamines) according to Tareq Khan, M.D. St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital, Houston, Texas.

3. If you suffer bloating due to alcohol's dehydrating and water retention effect, try some magnesium rich snacks like dark chocolate or unsalted nuts, according to Carolyn Dean, M.D., North Dakota.

4. An obvious recommendation is to never drink on an empty stomach, and keep hydrated (drink plenty of water). I’ve observed that experienced wine tasters always have a bottle of water with them when they are visiting wineries.

Conclusion - Finally
While I am not allergic to red wine, I have met people who are. Some have developed red wine allergies later in life. What a scary thought! Learning about red wine allergies has encouraged me to dabble more with white and even rose wines. I'm no longer exclusively a red wine snob, but an all around wine snob. Give me a glass of wine over any other alcoholic beverage and I'll be your happy friend. Bring up the topic of sulfites in wine and I’ll talk your ears off about that too. Additional information about sulfites, NSA wine, organic wine and links follow.

Cheers!

*(Update 6/12/2011 I just found this document available from Amazon.com)
Making sense of sulfites: how to answer customers' questions about sulfites and health.(WINEMAKING): An article from: Wines & Vines- This digital document is an article from Wines & Vines, published by Wines & Vines on January 1, 2011. The length of the article is 3227 words. The article is delivered in HTML format and is available immediately after purchase. You can view it with any web browser.

Additional Information

About SO2
1. White wine contains slightly more sulfites than red.
2. Sulfites are naturally occurring. Yeast naturally produces sulfites during fermentation.
3. All wines have some sulfites, even wines without added sulfite. Nearly all winemakers add sulfites, about 80 mg/liter.
4. Red wine allergies are more likely caused by tannins or histamines in the red wine. The issue is complex and merits further research.
5. "NSA" wines, wines without added sulfites, are very perishable and should be consumed within a year of bottling.
6. Sulfite agents, when properly handled, are not intrinsically toxic to humans or to the environment.

By U.S. Law1. Wines cannot contain more than 350 mg/liter sulfites
2. Wines with more than 10 mg/liter must have a "Contains Sulfites" warning label
(Producers must show levels below 10 mg/liter analysis to omit the label)
3. Wines must have less than 1 mg/liter to have a label with "No Sulfites"
(This level must be shown by analysis)
(In Australia a label is required indicating "Preservative 220")
4. All wines must carry the label whether made in the U.S. or abroad.

Green Wine
With the increased interest and concern over the environment, sulfites are taking a hit as one of the bad guys in the wine making process. "NSA" (no sulfites added) wines are being embraced by the green community as something positive and eco-friendly. This phenomenon is also piggy-backed on the popularity for all things organic, although "organic wine" does not mean NSA wine and there is no such thing as "sulfite free" wine. Once again, an apparently simple topic becomes more complex as you dig into it.

What is Organic Wine?
Organic wines are produced using organically grown grapes. No pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, chemical fertilizers, or synthetic chemicals of any kind are allowed on the vines or in the soil. Strict rules govern the winemaking process and storage conditions of all imported and domestic wines that acquire certification. Moreover, organic winemakers often avoid many of the chemical substances used to stabilize conventional wines.

Reference Links

A History of Wine in Ancient Greece,
http://www.greekwinemakers.com/czone/history/2ancient.shtml

Andrew L. Waterhouse, Sulfites in Wine, March 2007http://waterhouse.ucdavis.edu/winecomp/so2.htm

Lisa, Shea, Sulfites and Wine, http://www.wineintro.com/glossary/s/sulfites.html

Red Wine Headache vs. Sulfite Allergy, http://www.beekmanwine.com/prevtopbd.htm

Ruth Papazian, Sulfites: Safe for Most, Dangerous for Some, http://www.fda.gov/fdac/features/096_sulf.html

What are Sulfites? http://www.wineaccess.com/store/oceanwineandspirits/newsletter.html

The Organic Wine Company, Wine Facts: The Sulfites Issue, http://www.theorganicwinecompany.com/sulfites.php

U.S. Food and Drug Administration, 1-800-FDA-4010

Comments

  1. I am highly allergic to sulfites, but this did not occur until I was in my 30's. I can no longer drink any wine, unless I want to spend the rest of the night in the restroom. When I used to drink wine I almost always drank white, so I don't see red as the main culprit. I am also allergic to sulfa drugs, coincidence according to the medical community.

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  2. Burgundy Wine“The wines from Bourgogne boast a longer history than any others.”
    Here are some key dates in the long winegrowing history of Bourgogne, listed in chronological order.

    312: Eumenes’ Discourses: oldest known documented reference.
    1115: Clos de Vougeot Château built by monks from Cîteaux.
    August 6, 1395: Duke Philip the Bold (1342-1404) publishes ordinance governing wine quality in Bourgogne.
    1416: Edict of King Charles VI setting the boundaries of Bourgogne as a wine producing area (from Sens to Mâcon).
    November 11, 1719: Creation of the oldest mutual assistance organisation, the "Société de Saint Vincent" in Volnay.
    1720: Champy, Bourgogne's oldest merchant company was founded in Beaune and is still in business today.
    1728: The first book devoted to the wines from Bourgogne, written by Father Claude Arnoux, is published in London.
    July 18, 1760: Prince Conti (1717-1776) acquires the "Domaine de La Romanée", which now bears his name.
    1789: French Revolution. Church-owned vineyards confiscated and auctioned off as national property.
    October 17, 1847: King Louis-Philippe grants the village of Gevrey the right to add its name to its most famous cru – Chambertin. Other villages were quick to follow suit.
    1851: First auction of wines grown on the Hospices de Beaune estate.
    1861: First classification of wines (of the Côte d'Or) by Beaune's Agricultural Committee.
    June 15, 1875: Phylloxera first detected in Bourgogne (at Mancey, Saône-et-Loire).
    1900: Creation of the Beaune Oenological Station. April 30, 1923: Founding of La Chablisienne, Bourgogne's first cooperative winery.
    April 29, 1930: A ruling handed down by the Dijon civil courts legally defines to the boundaries of wine-growing Bourgogne (administrative regions of Yonne, Côte-d’Or, and Saône-et-Loire, plus the Villefranche-sur-Saône area in the Rhône).
    December 8, 1936: Morey-Saint-Denis becomes the first AOC in Bourgogne.
    October 14, 1943: Creation of Premier Cru appellation category.
    October 17, 1975: Crémant de Bourgogne attains AOC status.
    Jully 17, 2006: Creation of Bourgogne's 100th appellation: “Bourgogne Tonnerre”.
    You can more information on the burgundy wine in: http://www.burgundywinevarieties.com/

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  3. This post has generated the most traffic on my wine blog. I'm considering re-visiting the topic of wine allergies. I've been plagued by allergies and food intolerance enough that it probably merits further discussion. Last year I had to reduce my coffee consumption - it was affecting my enjoyment of red wine. Thanks for the comments.

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