Every wine purchased in this country has a small warning on the label that the wine in question contains sulfites: chemical compounds used to keep wine from spoiling, oxidizing, refermenting, or otherwise going all undrinkable. Sounds good, right? So why the warning? Because sulfites give you headaches! They can even kill you! But you’re safe drinking wines when you’re overseas, right? Totally, because in Europe wines are made in a special sulfite-less way, and then chemicals are added to please us Twinkie-loving Americans. We suck and so do sulfites!
Almost, but not quite, complete bullshit. Yet I hear variations of the above from wine drinkers all the time. Sulfites, widely misunderstood, are the great mythic bugaboo of wine.
Here, then, are the facts:
Sulfites occur in wine naturally in very small quantities, as they’re a byproduct of fermentation, and are also added as a preservative by a majority of winemakers here and abroad. Winemakers in Europe pioneered the use of sulfites hundreds of years ago, but since they’re not required by law to indicate sulfite usage on their labels at home, many people believe that sulfites are added just for the American market.
Yes, people have died due to sulfite reactions, but wine was never the culprit. Countless foods and prescription medications contain more sulfites than vino (if dried apricots don’t kill you, wine won’t). The odds are very slim that you’re allergic anyway. Only about 1 percent of the population is sensitive to sulfites and an even smaller percentage (.4 percent to be precise) are so sensitive that they face any serious risk, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
But what about those headaches you get when you drink red wine? Sulfites are not to blame. Sensitivity to sulfites rarely results in a headache—it more often gives people breathing trouble (sulfite sensitivity is most prominent in people who have asthma). And white wines generally contain a greater amount of sulfites than reds, owing to their higher sugar content. Yet rarely do people complain about white wine headaches.
Medical science is on the case. There’s even an official name for the problem: Red Wine Headache Syndrome. But here’s the rub: No one knows what causes it. Pretty much every explanation put forward (sulfites, tannins, histamines) has been shot down. Plus, there’s the weird randomness and specificity of people’s complaints. Working in a wineshop, I’ve heard it all: “I can only drink French reds,” “Chiantis and wines from Provence are fine, nothing else works,” “Only wines that start with ‘T’ and have red labels.” It’s enough to make any wine retailer’s head throb.
I believe you that your head hurts, but please stop blaming sulfites. There’s another chemical commonly found in wine that’s much worse. It causes headaches, nausea, hallucinations, tremors, and violent outbursts. It kills many thousands of people each year. I’ll give you a hint. It starts with an “A”, ends with an “L” and rhymes with “schmalcohol.”