It’s entirely possible that your hangover, headache or brown-bottle flu was caused by sulfites. However, as easy as it is to scapegoat sulfites, there are other factors that most don’t consider.
With today’s growing awareness of health, nutrition and vitality, sulfites are considered the demon of alcoholic beverages, from wine to beer and hard cider. Oddly enough, people seem to be more concerned with the effects of sulfites over the effects of alcohol on one’s liver and kidneys.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, only 1 percent of the U.S. population is allergic to sulfites and around 10 percent of asthmatics suffer from reactions to them.
Sulfites are a byproduct of fermentation. All wine contains naturally-occurring sulfites, albeit in low concentrations, usually below 10 ppm. Wines that do not have added sulfites have a limited shelf life, usually less than a couple years from bottling. These wines need to have a lower pH, or higher acidity, and are typically lighter in body. The higher natural acidity of these wines acts as a natural preserver.
Rich, full-body red wines have a naturally higher pH, or lower acidity, and are considered unstable and thus require the addition of sulfur dioxide, albeit less than for white wines. The reason for these additional sulfites is to stabilize the wine from bacterial growth and pre-oxidiation. This addition also allows for long bottle aging.
A common misconception wine professionals hear day in and day out is that reactions to sulfites are most common with red wine. Oddly enough, red wine actually has lower sulfur dioxide than white wine. White wine typically has higher natural acidity (with the exception of California chardonnay) which aids in stabilizing the wine. However, the higher concentrations of added sulfur dioxide used during their fermentation and bottling is actually to preserve their color. Without added sulfites, white wine will change color relatively quickly after bottling. Who wants to drink a brown pinot grigio?
There are other factors to consider before blaming sulfites and red wines for your headache. Most don’t consider that rich reds require longer macerations, the time the grape skins and juice are together. Long-macerated reds put considerably more strain on the liver and kidneys to filter out all the color. Additionally, full-bodied reds tend to have a higher alcohol content. A wine that has 15 percent ABV has 25 percent more alcohol than a wine with an ABV of 12 percent.
In the U.S., the maximum allowable sulfur dioxide is 350 ppm, while the European Union sets their maximum at 250 ppm. Working with sustainable producers will enable you to find wines with lower sulfur dioxide. Wines “made with organic grapes” must be below 150 ppm. Biodynamic wines must be below 100 ppm. “Organic Wine” must be below 10 ppm of naturally occurring sulfites. For comparison, an egg contains 200 ppm of naturally occurring sulfur. Fresh shrimp, pickles, fresh mushrooms, various cheeses and avocados all have naturally occurring sulfur content below 50 ppm.
Alan Cuenca is an accredited oenophile and owner of Put a Cork in It, a Durango wine store. Reach him at email@example.com.