Customer walks into a wine shop and asks, “Where are the organic wines?”. He then adds “white wines give me terrible a terrible headache”. First rule of drinking: NEVER GULP A WHOLE BOTTLE IN ONE SITTING. But if you are a sensible, social drinker who still finds him/herself reaching out for some aspirin after a couple of glasses of wine, you may belong to the small percentage of the population who is allergic to sulfites.
And what exactly are these sulfites? Sulfites are a naturally occurring chemical found in grapes which function as a preservative with powerful antibacterial and antioxidant qualities. It is in the skin, in the seeds, in the stems of any grape. And because they are so good at what they do, sulfites are sometimes added to wine.
These sulfites are completely harmless to humans, with the exception of the poor folk who are allergic to them. Because the amount of sulfites in wine is so small they are measured in PPM’s or Parts Per Million. In the US, any wine containing 10ppm or higher is required to bear a “Contains Sulfites” legend right on the label, to warn unsuspecting drinkers. Wines with under 10ppm are exempt. Now comes the dirty secret: there is NO SUCH THING as sulfite free wine. Because the amount of sulfites in wine is so infinitesimally small, there may be wines which have undetectably small amounts of it. However, in the wine making process, it would be impossible to prevent all the parts of a grape cluster from being crushed together in order the keep sulfites from entering the juice.
So what do you do if you are allergic. Simple: (a) air your wine. Sulfites don’t fare well in oxygen. If you allow your wine to breathe for a while, they’ll burn off. (b) Drink wines from drier climates. Moisture and cloudy conditions promote less than ideal growing conditions, leading to the application of sulfites to the plants to prevent disease (hint: look for “no sulfites added labels”). And (c) have a little aspirin or ibuprofen, just like you would with any headache. And also keep in mind that allergens build up in your body, so if you drink wines with a high concentration of sulfites 2 or 3 nights in a row, you’re that more likely to have a reaction.
And for wine’s sake, stay away from that tempting $4.99-dollar bottle of wine, because sulfites may be about the only known ingredient in that “wine”. Remember the money you are saving you’ll spend the next day on headache medicine. And this is true for any booze.
PS: A quick note to “sulfite free” wine drinkers. Sulfites slow down oxygenation and aging. Most low sulfite wines will age quicker and should be consumed relatively soon after purchase.