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Sulfites: Don't Get Me Started...

“Contains Sulfites.” With the possible exception of “untamed sensuality,” these might be the most misleading words ever to grace a bottle of wine.

“But Steve” you say, forcefully turning this into a dialogue, “some people have a real sensitivity to sulfites. Clearly this government-mandated notification helps them decide which wine to buy and which wine not to buy.” Well, dear reader, it has now become evident why I write the wine blogs and why you read them. By the way, check your Farmville tab, I think your cauliflower is ready.

Let’s back up a bit. Why are sulfites even in wine? First of all they are a naturally occurring byproduct of fermentation. Yes, all wine contains sulfites, unless it’s actually been processed to remove them. Not a lot, mind you. Normally somewhere between 6 and 40ppm of SO2 are created during fermentation. Second, and more importantly, they are added to wine as a preservative. This is not a new byproduct of heartless industrial world where robots rule over terrified mammals; it’s a technique that has been an integral part of winemaking for thousands of years. Without it, it is almost impossible to achieve a wine that will remain stable for aging. SO2 acts as bouncer to keep any microbial party-crashers out and prevent further fermentation.

The law in the US of A states that any wine containing more than 10ppm must be labeled with “contains sulfites.” Moreover it sets a maximum of 350ppm allowed for any wine. Keep in mind, though, that 150ppm is generally the average, and any wine going to or from the European Union is limited to 160 for red and 210 for whites and rosés.

Now there is a very tiny percentage of the population who is unfortunate enough to have a serious sensitivity to sulfur dioxide. Many of them are already asthmatic to begin with and they can suffer extremely serious reactions when exposed to as little as 4ppm of the stuff. Symptoms can include trouble breathing, rash, pulmonary irregularities and headache.

See that last word?


That is the symptom that so many people have latched on to in order to convince themselves that they have sulfite sensitivity when they get a “Red Wine Headache.” No wheezing, no nausea, no knocking on death’s door, just a headache and they’re off to harass the summer help at the local wine store about getting more sulfite-free wines (remember that “No added sulfites” is not the same thing as “Sulfite free,” kids).

The bottom line is that if you can enjoy your toast and jelly, French fries, dried fruit or pickles – all products containing sulfites – without looking like a scene out of Pulp Fiction, then chances are the headache you experience while slurping down that glass of Rioja has as much to do with sulfites as it does with the couch you’re sitting on. Oh, and as for sulfites being the cause of Red wine headache? More often than not there is more of the stuff in white wines anyway.

So now you’re probably asking yourself why am I still reading this what does cause RWH? I’m afraid you’re going to wait until next week, dear reader, for you are now experiencing my first Lot18 Blog Cliffhanger™! Besides, all the sulfites in this iMac are giving me a headache; I need to take a break.

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