I am sure I’m probably not going to make any friends with this rant, but the truth is, what you think you know about sulphites in wine is probably wrong. (Go ahead and gripe about the ph spelling. Bring cookies.)
This is going to be a long rant, though I am going to attempt to make it as short as possible. (I suck at that, sorry.) I am not a chemist. I am not a doctor. Do not take my advice as coming from either of those things. Read this, with the understanding that I am just a nerd. I am also a nerd who in partnership with her dear, sweet ol’ man once attempted to shoot flaming tampons from a paintball gun. So, I mean, take it for what it’s worth, please.
First, let’s get the allergy thing out of the way. Self-diagnosis is often hit and miss. I am at odds with the internet providing us great information on medical issues, because, well: on the one hand, I believe in truly informed consent and I don’t trust the medical establishment much. On the other, med student’s disease in…people who are not med students. (True story, I once was utterly convinced I was hemorrhaging, when in fact, I just had really bad gas. The resultant shart will forever live on in infamy in my shame filled mind and in the teasing of my peers. Again, I reiterate- DO NOT TAKE ME AS AN EXPERT. Just a nerd.)
Furthermore, there is no such thing as a truly “sulphite free wine”. Wine yeast produces sulfur dioxide- which is SO2. SO2, is…wait for it…sulphite! What you’re looking at when you see a so-called “sulphite free” wine is wine with no added sulphite- which means your sulfite free wine probably, according to most experts contains about 6-40 ppm of sulphite, anyway. Wait, a marketer lied to you? Say it ain’t so! It is. Now, “No added sulphites” is much more honest, but that again, does not mean you are getting a sulphite free wine.
Another thing to note about organics. Look at your labels and you’ll probably see more that read “made from organically grown grapes” but not “organic wine”. Why is that? Because if it is organic, there can be no added sulphites.
Now, its use has been on the decline, with some winemakers opting even to add the SO2 after fermentation. This is because to start, healthy and careful viticultural practices to ensure no rot are in place and winery hygiene is assured. (Or, well, it’s supposed to be.) Sulphites that are added directly to the wine after the fermentation process takes place are used to prevent oxidation. The sulfur binds to oxygen and prevents that from happening.
When used appropriately, even that added sulphite may help improve the quality of the finished wine product. Most international regulatory boards set the legal sulphite levels at somewhere in the neighborhood of 350 ppm, total SO2. The commercial wines you may pick up will range anywhere from about 50-100 ppm.
According to Dr. Mary C. Tobin, director of the Division of Allergy and Immunology at Rush University Medical Center- a reaction to sulphites will typically be: hives, itching, flushing, swelling, nausea, diarrhea and low blood pressure.
These reactions may be mild to life threatening, but according to most statistics, only one in every 100 people will have any real reaction at all. Of those, asthmatics seem to fare the worst, with 5% of all asthmatics suffering a sulphite allergy.
So, what’s this deal with the headache? It could be several things, actually. First of all, if you’re drinking crappy wine, the fermentation process usually sucks. (For brevity, I’m simplifying a bit.) The sucky fermentation can produce methanol instead of ethanol, which will then give you the brain-banger.
One thing to note here, is that often, it’s also the kind of added sulphite that can cause that headache and even the horrendous, screw your whole day migraine. This is the kind of sulphite you want to avoid- or, at least, I tend to try to. Unfortunately, this preservative is found in tons of things and is often labeled in a different manner so as to throw off people who are attempting to avoid it. While the more commonly used sulphite is sodium metabisulphite- the big bad monster is monosodium glutamate, or, MSG.
A lot of people who think they are allergic to sulphites are actually reacting to the particular form of sodium in the most commonly used sulphite – sodium metabisulphite. These people also react to other types of sodium like MSG. If you’d like to know more about the various aliases, Truth in Labeling has a fantastic list, here.
Lastly, wine-os, here’s the thing. Wine is made of…what?
Alcohol. What causes headaches?
Alcohol. And tannins and histamines, which are also found in wine. I know, I know, it’s easier to pick the government sanctioned boogie man, isn’t it? I highly suggest you pick up a great book. I do that a lot, but this one, is in context to wine making and is actually a terrific look at many things. Thomas Pinney’s A History of Wine In America is a two volume set which is pretty much THE guide to everything wine in the US. In volume 2, he goes into then Senator Strom Thurmond’s campaign in ’86 behind the whole sulphite warning issue. It’s definitely worth a read.
But, but, the headaches, the headaches! Those are real, Holly, they happen!
Duh, Captain Obvious.
Does it really make a difference what kind of wine you’re drinking?
Yes, but more than likely not how you think.
Let’s deconstruct one myth here: red wines have less sulphites in them than white wines. Why? Because they don’t need them as much. They do contain more tannin, which is used for the same reason additional sulphites would be: stablization. They also typically go through a process known as malolactic fermentation, which requires, again- less sulphite use.
Now, what does this mean for the home-grown hillbilly wine-o? If you’re not adding additional sulphites to your wine, you need to make sure that your fruit, process and facilities are pristine.
You can find out about yeast in the next post, here.