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Wine 101: Sulfites


Rebel Rose
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Welcome to Wine 101!

Over the next few months I’ll be posting a different Wine 101 topic every few weeks. I hope everyone will enjoy the topics, and I’d like to stress that these threads are for beginners, neophytes, food gulleteers, and the merely curious. They are NOT meant as erudite cork dork discussions. I hope my wine knowledgeable friends in this forum will join me in making everyone feel welcome, and in satisfying their curiosity about all things enological.

Please feel free to suggest new topics and ask questions.

After my website is redesigned ::heavy sigh:: I will post links to the topic intros to save space, but for now, I have posted our first discussion on sulfites here in its entirety. Enjoy!

Sulfites ~ Nothing to Sneeze At

"Do your wines contain sulfites? My friend is very allergic and she'll go into shock if she drinks wine containing sulfites."

That's enough to scare me silly. All I need is to have a gasping, cyanotic customer on the floor during my shift. "Well, uh," I stammer, "then perhaps she'd better not have any, just in case." And I pull the glass back.

He hangs on to the glass. "So your wines do have sulfites, then?"

Sulfites, I explain, are a natural fruit by-product, occurring in nature, and found on the dusty skin of grapes before they are washed. Winemakers are allowed to use sulfur dioxide as a natural disinfectant and preservative. Sulfites are also a natural by-product of the fermentation process and a necessary ingredient if wine is to age properly because they retard oxidation and microbial growth.

Many people believe it's the sulfites that give them headaches when they drink red wine. Although this may in some cases be true, it could be the tannin content which creates a histamine reaction. Tannin, an aldehydic substance naturally found in grape skins and seeds, is also a natural preservative, and is found in greater quantity in red wine. (Remember Boris Karloff as "The Mummy," craving his daily dose of tanna leaves?)

Red wines are macerated and fermented "on their skins" to extract color, flavor and tannin from the pigment-rich skins. Young wines with fresh tannins can taste very astringent. Compare it to eating a whole bunch of red table grapes—in spite of the wonderful juice inside, grape skins and seeds will leave a dry, abraded feeling on your tongue. People who are sensitive to products like nuts, tea leaves, and cinnamon bark will often be sensitive to the woody component of tannin as well, which can result in headaches and stuffy noses.

Sulfites got their bad name not from wine but from salad bars, where sulfite-laden water was used to keep cut-up greens from turning brown. Overdosed vegetables were found to contain as much as 2,000 ppm, and people who were hyperallergic to the chemical went into shock after eating them.

Other products which have been documented as having high sulfite content include canned pineapple, fresh tomatoes and potatoes, tomato juice, and some frozen juices.

Consumer protection groups lobbied for laws banning the use of sulfites in salad bars and for warning labels on products containing more than 10 ppm, a level that often occurs naturally during fermentation. The legal limit for wine is 250 ppm; most winemakers add much less—about 80 ppm. Sulfur dioxide is used today in smaller quantities than ever before due to increased effectiveness in filtration and equipment sanitation. Bottled wines will generally have no more than 50 ppm of free sulfur dioxide, which equates to 50 milligrams per liter.

Sulfur dioxide smells like burnt matchheads, and may elicit a sneeze or a slight burning sensation in the nose. Many people are sensitive to sulfur dioxide, and their reactions may range from a tingling nose to nausea when drinking wine with higher sulfite contents. Allergic individuals are those with hypersensitive reactions, usually asthma.

According to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, wine drinkers may ingest up to 10 mg. of sulfites a day, while people who eat in restaurants, and who enjoy foods like fresh salads, potatoes, shrimp, or avocado dip, typically ingest from 25 to 100 mg. of sulfites during one meal.

My taster grabs his girlfriend's glass and pulls it back. "Then she can taste wine with sulfites?"

I keep my hold on the glass and tug it back toward me, a dozen rude questions scrambling through my head. "Has she tasted wine before? And lived? Does wine give her headaches or send her to the hospital? If she's sure she's allergic to sulfites, why did you bring her winetasting?"

Of course, some people are genuinely hypersensitive or allergic to sulfur dioxide and should avoid it in any form.

But odds are, if you can eat canned pineapple, you can drink wine.

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Mary Baker

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Thanks for posting this. I think the treatment of sulfur (not sulfite related) is probably worth a future installment. Sulfur dioxide to hydrogen sulfite to mercaptans to disulfides. You get the idea. Maybe it leads to a reduction v. oxidation topic.

We cannot employ the mind to advantage when we are filled with excessive food and drink - Cicero

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Thanks for posting this. I think the treatment of sulfur (not sulfite related) is probably worth a future installment. Sulfur dioxide to hydrogen sulfite to mercaptans to disulfides. You get the idea. Maybe it leads to a reduction v. oxidation topic.

Of course, Average Joe/Jane Consumer is terrified of "sulfates" in wine.

Mark

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Of course, Average Joe/Jane Consumer is terrified of "sulfates" in wine.

I encountered one gentleman who wanted to know if we use 'steroids' in our wine, because he objected strenuously to the use of 'steroids' in winemaking!

I dunno, seems like a fast way to get it into your bloodstream, and it would sure make lifting barrels easier . . .

Edited by DoverCanyon (log)

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Mary Baker

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As I understand it, U.S. labelling requirements are more stringent than European and virtually all wine sold in the US must have "Contains sulfites" on the label. Not so in Europe. My friend recently asked me why a Spanish winemaker would add sulfites to wine exported to the US, but not to the same wine sold in Spain? Huh? I asked. She said she got headaches drinking a certain wine bought locally, but when a friend brought back a bottle of the same wine and vintage bought in Spain it did not contain sulfites and she could drink all she wanted, no problem.

Since most people don't like to hear "its all in your mind", I did not tell her the only difference was the label. I did tell her that sulfites are a natural and inevitable component of wine and some had more than others, but .....

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Of course, Average Joe/Jane Consumer is terrified of "sulfates" in wine.

I encountered one gentleman who wanted to know if we use 'steroids' in our wine, because he objected strenuously to the use of 'steroids' in winemaking!

I dunno, seems like a fast way to get it into your bloodstream, and it would sure make lifting barrels easier . . .

A few weeks ago, a customer called me over and asked me which wines by the glass I serve "don't have preservatives", because he can't drink wine with "preservatives". He seemed suspicious when I said none of them had what I would consider preservatives. A little knowledge........

Mark

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  • 4 weeks later...
  • 4 weeks later...

I also applaud this topic!! It is very frustrating to try to explain that the genuine Sulfite allergy is a hystemic allergy like Bee Stings or Peanuts. Those few people with this reaction simply can not have wine, just as any other serious reaction. The headaches and hangovers are not sulfite related. But again, try explaining that to the customer that loved that bottle of Rhone wine in France but "gets a headache" from the same bottle back home.

Also, two strips of bacon have more sulfites than a 750ml bottle of wine.

I just found this forum, and am glad to be here!

Cheers,

Rob

"When I lived in Paris, and champagne was relatively cheap, I always enjoyed a half-bottle in the middle of the morning and another half-bottle at six or so in the evening. It did me a tremendous amount of good." - Gerald Hamilton.
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Welcome, Rob! C'mon in and stay awhile!

I too am glad for this topic. I've had more than one person assert that my occasional wine headaches were from sulfites - where did this idea get started, anyway? - and I've had to point to the labels of all the wines I can drink. The sulfites aren't the culprit.

I never knew the whitish coat on our grapes was sulfite compounds! How interesting!

The steroids bit reminds me of a student project some years back, in which the student(s) tried to collect signatures on a petition to ban a dangerous chemical called dihydrogen monoxide. The petition listed a number of deadly hazards: in sufficient quantity, DHMO can kill you; given enough time, it can dissolve almost anything, and so on, and yet the government has done nothing about it! By the end of the day, the number of adults who had signed the petition heavily outweighed the number who realized they were reading about water. :huh:

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Welcome aboard, Rob! Please feel free to ask questions and join in our lively discussions.

By the end of the day, the number of adults who had signed the petition heavily outweighed the number who realized they were reading about water.

Oh, that's mean! :laugh:

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Mary Baker

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Welcome Rob! We're happy to have you here, and if your post is any indication of the level of discourse we can expect from you, we're lucky you stumbled in!

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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Then I have a follow up question. My wife always gets quite nasally congested after we share a bottle of wine at a restaurant. More so with red but it also happens with white wine. Am I to take it that this is due to the sulfites in the wine? She has no allergies so are the sulfites the likely culprit?

"Nutrirsi di cibi prelibati e trasformare una necessita in estasi."

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Then I have a follow up question. My wife always gets quite nasally congested after we share a bottle of wine at a restaurant. More so with red but it also happens with white wine. Am I to take it that this is due to the sulfites in the wine? She has no allergies so are the sulfites the likely culprit?

Davidb,

It's more likely due to the tannins in the reds, and copper in the whites.

White wine is more susceptible to hydrogen sulfide (rotten egg smell) because the higher acid in white wine is a perfect medium for an aceter-sulfate reaction. . . The sulfites added at the crusher + any cruising vinegar bacteria + they both really love acid = they marry, have kids and die, resulting in a highly reduced rotten egg smell.

To prevent that marriage, some wineries sprinkle a little copper sulfate into the whites. So, your wife may be sensitive to the woody tannin component in reds, and to the occasional copper-enhanced white.

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Mary Baker

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Since we're on the topic of allergic reactions to wine, I'll ask my question here. I've been trying to pin down the substance in certain wines that gives me a headache, partly out of chemical curiosity but mostly so I can predict which wines to avoid. I don't mean the predictable headache that comes with overindulgence; I mean a real :shock: back-of-the-eyeballs head-banger that lasts the entire next day after only one glass of wine at dinner, with no other alcohol in the evening. Rosemount Shiraz (the black diamond label) is one of them, and unfortunately I learned it after my husband and I had bought a bunch because we liked its taste for the price. I haven't found a rule. Some reds do it, some whites do it. The reds seem most likely to be shiraz (most notably Australian), but I can drink many other shiraz/syrah with impunity and I've gotten the same reaction from some other reds - cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel. Some cheap sauvignon blancs give me the same reaction.

Any ideas? I know it isn't sulfites. I'm tempted to have a lab run a series of tests to see if the demon compound can be isolated, but it would be an expensive proposition because I wouldn't know what to tell them to look for. Besides that, I don't know of any wine purveyor who lists, say, the level of ethylhexylketomethylheadbanger on their labels, so I'm not sure how helpful the analyses would be.

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Besides that, I don't know of any wine purveyor who lists, say, the level of ethylhexylketomethylheadbanger on their labels, so I'm not sure how helpful the analyses would be.

Wow. I wish they did have a test for that! Unfortunately, there are so many compounds in wine that vary with the vineyard, vintage, and winemaking program. If you consistently find that wines from a certain producer or area give you headaches, it is probably due to something in the winemaking process, but it could be a concentration of tannin, which produces a histamine reaction, it could be copper, it could even be natural acids or phenolics that are present in the wine in a higher density than at other times. There's also the complication that higher alcohols and acids may amplify your reaction to something.

I occasionally get the headbangers myself, and from a small amount of wine. We have an old family friend who is always bringing us wine from one of his favorite zinfandel producers. The stuff gives me a raging headache, but he loves it! I can't say no, because he knows the winemaker personally, each new wine is like a baby bird leaving the nest . . . he pours me some wine and hands it to me with this happy, expectant look every time. (I've learned not to quaff it, at any rate!) The wine really is good, so I enjoy a few sips, and then since I'm usually cooking, I just desert my glass in hopes it will get kidnapped. "Oh my goodness, where did my glass go? And look, the bottle's empty." :sad:

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Mary Baker

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I'm surprised no one has made the obvious connection that the "Contains Sulfites" label that exists only in the United States, the most litigious society in this galaxy and the fact that no other country feels the need to place this phrase on their labels.

Y'think maybe the wineries and/or the BATF don't want to get sued by an asthmatic or some sulfite-hypersensitive individual for causing a case of anaphalctic shock? :unsure:

Katie M. Loeb
Booze Muse, Spiritual Advisor

Author: Shake, Stir, Pour:Fresh Homegrown Cocktails

Cheers!
Bartendrix,Intoxicologist, Beverage Consultant, Philadelphia, PA
Captain Liberty of the Good Varietals, Aphrodite of Alcohol

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I enjoy a few sips, and then since I'm usually cooking, I just desert my glass in hopes it will get kidnapped.  "Oh my goodness, where did my glass go?  And look, the bottle's empty."  :sad:

:laugh: What a great strategy! It beats heck out of knocking the glass over! :laugh:

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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Great topic -- thanks! -- that leads me to a question. I have a brother-in-law, generally considered to be a buffoon, who suffers from migranes and refuses wine because "it has caffeine" (not the real reason he refuses, but that's another, long, story.) ARGGGG! It is the sulfites, is it not, that might trigger a migrane? There is not, am I correct, caffeine in wine????? One of the most glaring characteristics of his buffoonery is that he's an absolute expert on every subject, so while I felt certain he was mistaken I didn't want to assume too much and become the buffoon myself.

TIA for setting him -- uh, I mean me -- straight.

Amy in Michigan
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ARGGGG!  It is the sulfites, is it not, that might trigger a migrane?  There is not, am I correct, caffeine in wine????? 

Uhmm, if I've been reading this thread correctly, sulfites are very likely not the culprit. As noted above, and in the "Copper Headaches" thread, more likely culprits for migraine headaches are tannins in the red wines and coppers (particularly in some white wines).

As to caffeine in wine: I've sure never gotten a caffeine jag from it, and it sure seems more likely to put me to sleep than wake me up. However, I like the excuse for a good cuppa wine in the morning! :laugh:

Nancy Smith, aka "Smithy"
HosteG Forumsnsmith@egstaff.org

"Every day should be filled with something delicious, because life is too short not to spoil yourself. " -- Ling (with permission)

"There comes a time in every project when you have to shoot the engineer and start production." -- author unknown

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  • 3 weeks later...
Uhmm, if I've been reading this thread correctly, sulfites are very likely not the culprit.  As noted above, and in the "Copper Headaches" thread, more likely culprits for migraine headaches are tannins in the red wines and coppers (particularly in some white wines).

Maybe this will help?:

I've had migraines since I was a child, and also regularly taste wines for my job as a server/bartender. There is a whole list of foods/bevs (given to me by my neurologist) that may or may not trigger a migraine headache. Any item on this list could affect one person but not another. For example, aged meats and cheeses might give someone else a migraine headache, but not me. And coffee or chocolate might affect me (because of the caffeine) but not someone else. There are about 50 things on this list - and wines are included.

In addition, I get migraine headaches from raw oysters, as well as some wines. I am under the impression that it is the sulfites in raw oysters and wine that might, for someone who suffers from the condition of migraine, induce a migraine headache. Tannins are also a trigger - I have never be warned by my doctor about copper, but I'm sure its possible.

However, even my doctor admitted that migraine is a condition that is still relatively uncharted - so basically, its all a crapshoot.

I also still imbibe, partly because I have to but mostly because I love wine :biggrin:. I am partial to red wines, but they are worse triggers for me than white. Maybe that's because of the tannins, I don't know. I don't alwys get a migraine headache from wine, especially if i don't have more than a glass. The dry quality of the wine (and therefore, tannins) hasn't been that much of a factor in whether or not I get a migraine headache. Other people who have migraine might fare better, or worse- it all depends on the individual.

Just wanted to (possibly) make some sense of this sulfites/tannins/migraine issue.....

Eat.Drink.DC.

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Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what's for lunch.

- Orson Welles

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My wife suffers from migraines also. One of the triggers for her is red wines and brown alcohols (bourbon,scotch etc.). White wines and clear alcohols do not trigger her headaches. In addition to tannins I have read about a group of chemical compounds called congeners (I think) that occur from barrel ageing that are also a trigger for these type of headaches

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Thank you all for the migrane info; I'm sure wine could be a legitimate trigger. But what I really need is confirmation that there is no caffeine in wine so I can sigh and correct him with authority the next time it comes up. (In my defense, I really am a decent, tolerant person, but this is a fool I've suffered too long.)

Edited by coffeeroaster (log)
Amy in Michigan
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Well, there's a lot of stuff in wine, but I have never heard of caffeine, so I'll go out on a limb and just say it.

There is No. Caffeine. In. Wine.

However, I also left a message for the "Lab Lady" today and I'm sure she'll get back to me on Monday with a definitive answer!

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Mary Baker

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