Perhaps nothing in the wine world has more misunderstanding than sulfites. Or rather, people’s reaction to them. Are there people with sulfite issues? Definitely. There are, however, very few people with true sulfite allergies or problems.
If you can drink white wine but not red, you don’t have a sulfite issue. Really. Sulfites are generally higher in whites.
If you can eat dried apricots or those lovely craisins, you don’t have a sulfite issue. There are about ten times more sulfites in two ounces of dried apricots than in a glass of wine.
Study after study has shown that there is no correlation between sulfites and headaches; a true reaction to sulfites is more like an asthmatic response. In fact, people with asthma are more prone to sulfite issues, which stems from a deficiency in the natural enzyme that breaks sulfites down.
So What Are Sulfites?
Sulfites, an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide, are part of the wine-making process and are produced naturally by the yeasts during fermentation. They’re also a great preservative and stabilizer with antibacterial properties, so many wineries add additional sulfites to stabilize their wines. Bacteria lowers, and that’s a good thing.
Lower sulfite wines are available; generally it means no additional sulfites were added, something required to receive an organic designation in the U.S. (Note: the label “made with organic grapes” does not require that no additional sulfites were added, just that the grapes themselves were organic.) But sulfite-free wines are rare; they have to undergo a process that removes the natural-occurring sulfites from the wine. And because sulfites stabilize, these wines can often be less consistent and of lower overall quality. Their shelf life is extremely limited (about six months), and they need to be kept in perfect storage conditions to ensure stability.
But, as I said, sulfites aren’t generally the issue. So what is? Are those headaches and stuffy noses all a placebo effect? Hardly. There are culprits.
RWH (Red Wine Headaches) and allergy-type reactions to wine are real things with no agreement on a real cause. But most likely to blame? Histamines and tannins.
In fact, I have a histamine issue with red wines. I often get stuffed up when I enjoy them, which, of course, makes me mad. A Zyrtec in my system beforehand works for me, but make sure you talk with your doctor before mixing any kind of drug with alcohol, even if it’s already prescribed or over-the-counter. Red wines have anywhere from 20%-200% higher levels of histamines than white, and if you already know you have allergy issues, this could be your culprit.
The tannins in red wines can also be an issue. While tannins show up lots of places (tea, chocolate, and soy for instance), somehow the way they react in wine—or rather the way people react to them—is different.
Tannins occur naturally in grape skins, and red wines get their color and some flavor from their prolonged time on the skins. They also, however, pick up tannins. The benefits, beside taste and texture, are in many ways the same as sulfites: stability and preservation. Because of this, red wines often need less or no additional sulfites. But studies have shown that some people react to these tannins poorly. Tannins cause the release of serotonin in the brain, which has been tied to headaches. This may be the case for RWH, but honestly, nobody is sure.
What to Do
If you know already which wines work for you and which don’t, you’re in a good place. It’s good to know what you like and what works for you. Many studies have shown that a single aspirin taken beforehand does wonders, and others show that antihistamines are great as well. Again, check with your doctor.
And if you show up at a gathering and a new glass is offered to you? Drink half a glass. If you don’t have a reaction within fifteen minutes (especially those of you prone to headaches), you’re probably in the clear. Try to stay to less than two glasses overall, and, if you enjoy it, write the bottle down for future “in the clear” reference.
And that headache the next day after going through multiple bottles with your friends? Not an allergic reaction. That’s called a hangover.