So, for this post, I want to talk about sulfites and their unfair reputation. I hear a lot of people say “oh, I can’t drink wine because I’m allergic to the sulfites- they give me a headache…” Well. In a word. No.
Sulfites are added to many, many things we eat all the time from frozen foods to dried fruit. They are naturally occurring in wine in very small amounts but are also added to prevent microbial growth. Some winemakers are brave and don’t use additions, but this is very risky. Even one yeast or bacterial cell in a bottle could spoil the whole thing. It’s safer to add sulfites- usually in the form of potassium metabisulfite, and most winemakers do. However, even in the cases where they’re added to wine, the amount is miniscule (we’re talking somewhere around 40 parts per million at the time of addition- and they dissipate easily, even from a closed bottle- so by the time you’re drinking it, it’s far, far less.) For a person to react to such a miniscule amount, they'd have to be extremely sensitive.
Furthermore, sulfite allergies do not present as a headache- they’d present as typical allergic reactions- trouble breathing, itching, sneezing, etc. Due to the commonality of sulfites in our food, if you were allergic (especially to the point of detecting them in such eensy amounts,) you would already know that they were a significant health issue for you.
So… why do some people get a headache from drinking wine? Well, the verdict is still out here… There are many different (and often contradictory) studies trying to figure this out, but no one has definitively… yet...
We do know that headaches are more commonly reported from red wine than white- and some scientists theorize that this could be due to small amounts of histamines present in red wines. It is certainly possible- however, remember that again, there are such very, very, very teensy amounts of histamines in wine, a person would have to be extraordinarily sensitive to them to have a response from a single glass of red. And again, if you were that sensitive, you’d probably already know.
So, while we don’t really know exactly why some people get a headache from red wine but not from white (it could be as simple as higher sugar and alcohol levels,) we can be pretty sure it ISN’T sulfites. If you’re one of these sensitive people, double up on your water, and pop an anti-histamine- just for good measure.
Don't believe me yet? Check out this Wall Street Journal article. Or this one, from the Chicago Tribune. If you have access to scientific journals, there are many more studies out there- but they're not exactly light reading...
Did you know?
Most wine is not truly vegan. (Sorry friends!) They can contain traces of insects, chicken eggs, and even fish products!
Any insects on the grapes when they are harvested and brought into the winery are crushed right into the wine. This seldom causes any issues in terms of wine quality, and due to fermentation and filtering, bacterial contamination from these bugs is not a concern.
Also, some winemaking processes, such as egg whites for tannin removal, involve the use of animal products- again, you won’t get salmonella, but traces could remain! Isinglass (derived from fish bladders) is also sometimes used to settle suspended solids out of wine.
All are pretty gross to think about, but don’t negatively affect the quality of the wine in your glass- I promise!