BUZZ: Hey Marnie, my cousin says he can't drink red wine because it gives him a headache. Is that because red wines have more sulfites?
Marnie: No, Buzz. That's an urban legend. Very few people have a sensitivity to sulfites, but among those who do, the symptoms are invariably respiratory - often trouble breathing. The most common negative reactions to wine, such as headaches, hangovers, and flushing, are not sulfite reactions. But as "contains sulfites" is the most visible health warning on wine labels, many people assume SO2 is to blame.
Buzz: Well, my cousin seemed pretty sure.
Marnie: If his problem was with sulfites, he'd have a bigger problem with white wines and sweet wines than with reds. Red wines are higher than whites in antioxidants drawn from grape skins. Because these act as natural preservatives, reds need less protection from oxidation and spoilage. On average, red wines have about a third lower sulfite content than white wines.
Buzz: Really! I can't wait to burst his bubble.
Marnie: If you really want to prove it to him, ask him if he gets headaches from dried fruit. Preserved fruits and vegetables usually contain way more sulfites than wine. If he can eat raisins or bagged supermarket salad without a reaction, he's definitely not sensitive to sulfites.
Buzz: I saw some wines that had no sulfites. Is that a new thing?
Marnie: Sort of. But there are a couple complications on the sulfites in wine. First, sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, so even wines with no additives contain some sulfites. Second, sulfur dioxide has been an essential step in winemaking since the times of ancient Greece.
Buzz: Wow, if it's been working since Socrates, maybe drinkers ought to back off.
Marnie: It could be advisable to use less SO2, but using none makes wines that turn quickly to vinegar. There is great debate right now among makers of organic wine. In Europe, using a small amount of naturally produced sulfite is permitted for wines labeled organic, but not here. That's why wine labels say "made from organic grapes" instead of "organic wine." Adding sulfites is permitted in the former, but not the latter.
Marnie Old is a local sommelier and
wine author. Her newest book, Wine: A Tasting Course, is an illustrated crash
course for the wine curious. Check her
out at MarnieOld.com or follow her
on Twitter at @MarnieOld. Buzz's
musings are interpreted by Gar Joseph.