Wine and Health
The Question of Sulfites
Let’s be clear, there are a small group of people who are sensitive to sulfites. The Food & Drug Administration (FDA) has determined that about one person in 100 is sulfite-sensitive and that 5% of those (usually asthma sufferers) can have a serious adverse reaction to sulfites.
Many foods contain sulfites, many with much greater concentrations than wine; canned tomatoes, frozen shrimp and other shellfish, crackers, most dried fruit and fruit toppings, and orange juice to name a few. Sulfite sensitivity can be a serious medical problem and those who are sensitive must be careful, and will have to avoid many foods. The good news is that for the rest of us, sulfites are not a concern, each day our bodies produce more sulfite than is contained in a bottle of our wine.
We have had several customers in our tasting room express concerns regarding the use of sulfites in our wines. We would, therefore, like to offer some information we hope will clarify the issue of sulfites in wine.
In terms of impact on the environment, tons of fertilizer and pesticides are used in vineyards, and a few ounces of sulfite in the winery. Clearly, this is an issue that has been misunderstood. All wines contain sulfite, it is a natural by-product of fermentation, resulting in 8-15 parts per million (PPM) even without additional added sulfite. All wine made with organic grapes must contain less than 100 PPM at bottling, and this level goes down with ageing. Our wines have free sulfites at bottling that are two to three times what occurs naturally during fermentation, and after a couple years in the bottle are often below what can be accurately measured.
A person who has a sensitivity probably knows it, and must avoid many foods. Others think they might be sensitive because they have had headaches after drinking wine. Often one hears people say they particularly get headaches with red wines. In fact, white wines generally have higher sulfite levels, to prevent ‘browning’ or other effects of oxidization. The compounds in the skins of red grapes that give red wine its color also act as natural preservatives, allowing red wines to be stable with lower levels of sulfite.
If you have experienced a skin rash with redness, itching, and swelling, you may be sulfite sensitive. You may have experienced this after eating dried fruit, such as apricots, or after consuming frozen shellfish. Perhaps you experienced nausea and/or stomach cramps from a shrimp cocktail, pickles, even cookies or crackers; all these foods contain sulfites that you may have reacted to.
If, however, you can eat these foods with no negative reactions, you are not sulfite-sensitive.
Headaches, Wine and Sulfites
Some wine drinkers complain of a stuffy nose or headaches after consuming wine, symptoms that usually occur within an hour or two, and can occur after drinking a glass of wine, or less. (If you have a headache 6 to 12 hours after consuming wine, you have what is known as a ‘hangover’, often associated with over-consumption, but really caused by dehydration. Drink a few glasses of water before going to bed, or skip that last drink, and you should be OK.) So what caused the headache from that single glass of wine? If it was a red wine, chances are it was not sulfite related, as red wines usually contain less sulfite than white wines.
There are hundreds of compounds in a glass of wine, so it is hard to be certain of the cause, but let’s look at some possible culprits.
First of all is a group of compounds called amines. There are two main types in wine; histamines and tyramines. Both of these affect the blood vessels in your body, either dilating or constricting them. However, the concentrations of amines found in wine may be too small to cause headaches. The tannins in the skins of grapes are also suspected to cause headaches, but this mainly affects migraine sufferers. Both amines and tannins tend to be found at higher concentrations in young red wines. New research is looking at prostaglandin, which is produced by your body from compounds found in the grapeskin, and is active in very small concentrations.
There is another possibility, and that is the residue from pesticides that finds its way into a bottle of wine. There have been studies showing pesticide residue in wine made from conventionally grown grapes. Some people report headaches associated with wine disappear when they switch to wine made from organic grapes. This evidence is anecdotal, but our wines are free of pesticide and taste great, so it is worth trying them!
If you know positively that you are sulfite-sensitive, you do have a limited choice of wines that have no added sulfites, usually measuring 8-15 PPM natural sulfite at bottling. Unfortunately, without the use of sulfites as a protection from oxidation, these wines need to be consumed quite young and can be very inconsistent.
A Bit of History:
The use of sulfites to preserve wine dates back more than 2,000 years, to when the Romans used sulfur as one method of sealing their barrels and jugs. They may have burned sulfur to purify the vessels as well. Sulfur candles were recommended by 15th century German wine laws, to be burned inside barrels before filling them with wine. The sulfur dioxide left on the container would dissolve in the wine, becoming the preservative we call sulfites. By the 18th century sulfur candles were regularly used to sterilize barrels used in Bordeaux. Sulfites have been used to preserve food since the 17th century and in the U.S. since the early 1800's. The addition of sulfite preserves the color and flavor of foods, keeping fresh fruit flavors in your wine for years.
Due to increased sanitation in modern winemaking, the average level of sulfite used in wine is now much lower than in the past. Historically other preservatives used in wine have included pine resin and salt, which have a much greater impact on the flavor of the wine. Until wooden barrels were used by the Romans, most wine was stored in clay jugs which had to be coated with pine resin to make them leak proof.
What are sulfites?
Sulfites are created when sulfur dioxide is added to water or wine. The use of SO2 is as a preservative to prevent oxidation from turning wine (or food) brown or changing the flavors by taking away the freshness.
Why are there warnings on wine labels?
In 1985 the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) was hired by the government to determine the link between sulfites and health problems. Although it was determined that the vast majority of people do not have any reaction to sulfites, there are some who can actually go into shock (usually asthmatics who are taking steroids for their condition). For this reason, the FDA began requiring labels on all food and beverages containing more than 10 PPM and prohibited use of sulfites on fruits and veggies meant to be eaten raw, as in salad bars. On dried fruits, this will read in the ingredients list as sulfur dioxide and on a wine label as ‘contains sulfites’.
There are currently no regulations requiring reporting the amount of sulfites, but US law restricts the amount in wine to 350 PPM. All of our wines contain less than 100 PPM, meaning orange juice and pickles contain more sulfites than our wines.
What's a part per million?
10 parts per million is equal to 1 part sulfite to 100,000 parts wine – think of a drop of food coloring in a bathtub full of water!
What causes my headaches?
Two naturally occurring substances found in wine are histamines and tyramines. These cause blood vessels to expand or contract, sometimes causing headaches. These biogenic amines are found in both white and red wines, with higher concentrations in reds. Tannins have been known to cause headaches in those who suffer from migraines. Don't overlook the fact that maybe you just had one glass too many and your headache is one of the hangover variety, rather than any allergic reaction or sensitivity.
How do I know if I'm sulfite-sensitive?
Ask your doctor. If you have had reactions to pickles, dried fruits, processed jams, fruit/veggie juices or any number of other foods that contain sulfites, you may be sulfite sensitive. Reactions usually (but not exclusively) include stomach cramps, red itchy rash and/or shortness of breath. Again, consult your doctor regarding any problems you may have had. Note that wines with no added sulfites to those naturally occuring typically have 5 to 15 parts per million, and can have even more depending on the type of yeast used.