The #1 Wine Myth you probably still believe is not that red wine goes with meat and white with fish. Ready to shatter the #1 Wine Myth? Here goes — Sulfites in wine can cause headaches and allergic reactions. Here’s another: White wine is lower in sulfites than red.
First off, what’s a sulfite? Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is a compound chemical made up of sulfur (S) and oxygen (O). It’s both a natural occurrence and can also be created. What’s it good for? Preserving freshness, by acting as both an antioxidant (that’s a good thing) and an antimicrobial. Less than one percent of us are actually allergic to SO2.
Romans and other ancient societies used SO2 for production of wine to preserve wine from spoiling. Today, in the same way, winemakers are using SO2 to preserve freshness and flavor in wine.
Laws surround sulfite amounts in wine and how much can be added. More than 10 parts per million (ppm) of SO2, require the wine label to state “contains sulfites”. Laws vary, globally. The EU maximum is set at 210ppm. In the US, it’s 350ppm.
Sulfites are present in much higher amounts in other foods we happily consume: dried fruits, sodas, potato and other chips, candies, bacon, processed and deli meats and canned or convenience (packaged) foods and soups.
What about Natural or Organically Made Wine?
Sulfites are a natural occurrence in the fermentation process of winemaking even before a winemaker considers adding. A wine that is labeled “Organic” or “Bio-Dynamic” cannot have any added sulfites, but does contain sulfites as a part of the fermentation process. The amount varies between 10-50 ppm. Careful reading of the wine label is helpful as you may see that the wine is made from “organic grapes” – this is different than organic winemaking. If a wine is “organically made” it can contain up to 100ppm.
Natural wines are produced without adding or removing anything in the winemaking process, although some winemakers do add tiny amounts for preservation. These wines are best enjoyed young and not made for cellaring and aging.
Bottom line. The infamous headache experienced when drinking red wine is not from sulfites! In fact, white wine has a higher count. The likely culprit is the naturally occurring histamines from the grape skin, or tannins which come from the skins, pits and stems and tyramine another naturally occurring chemical found in fermented foods and aged cheese. Or, ahem….the alcohol itself.
Ever notice when traveling to Italy or France it seems you can drink red wine without getting a headache? One reason may be that the alcohol levels in wines from the EU are traditionally a bit lower than domestic wines. This is because the terroir and the winemaking styles differ. However, in the last decade wines from the US are drastically dropping in alcohol levels making them much more enjoyable as a beverage to be enjoyed with food – something the rest of the world learned long ago.
A few tips: Dryer wines with higher acidity will be lower in sulfites than sweet or dessert wines. Look on the label for lower alcohol content in European red wines and dry white wines. Look for: Red wines from Burgundy, Beaujolais, Pays d’Oc, Loire Valley, Tuscany, Marche, Sardegna, Sicily. Domestically, from Sonoma and Oregon. Your local wine shop and wine apps are invaluable guides for your enjoyment of the wines of summer.
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Photo credits: Vinfolio.com, Nutrition.com, GoItaly.com