In Defense of a Boogeyman (Wait, I Mean ‘Sulfites’)

I’ll admit it, sulfite sensitivity is real. And for some, asthmatics especially, it poses a real danger. Though even then, only 5% of the asthmatic population reacts negatively to sulfite exposure. The adverse effects of sulfites on asthmatics was such an issue that the U.S. government stepped in to regulate the use of SO2 (Sulfur Dioxide), and in one fell swoop, made it illegal for wine to be sold in the country without the dastard “Contains Sulfites” smacked right upon the label. Just kidding! That explanation you’ve heard over and again is pure myth.

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The real truth lies in the fact that teetotaling, Neo-prohibitionist members of congress in the 1980s set out to vilify alcohol and its users. Knowing that a new Volstead Act would never again pass, they merely set out to lobby for an ingredients list and government warning on every bottle of booze— a purely politicized move used only to scare, not to inform the population.

Another of my favorite myths is one I actually hear quite often from my jet-setting guests: That wines in European countries don’t have any sulfites in them at all, or that international producers send us a different wine than what they keep for themselves, a wine with more sulfites and less alcohol. No, this is untrue. The Rhône, Tuscan or Santorini wines you enjoy in France, Italy or Greece are the same you’re drinking here. Sorry.

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And perhaps the biggest myth— that sulfites cause one to have headaches. It’s simply not true. There is no evidence, no link even, between the consumption of sulfites and the rendering of headaches— no matter who you are or what wine you have consumed. So many studies have focused so strongly on trying to find the correlation between sulfites and headaches, that the myth has actually been disproven over and again. However, this small maligned notion has permeated the wine community so significantly that many forget that wine is an alcoholic beverage; and that alcohol can cause headaches through dehydration. Mon Dieu! There’s actually more reliable evidence that a wine’s histamines cause headaches more than even sulfites allegedly do! But what are sulfites?

A sulfite is a sulfur compound that occurs naturally in the wine-making process. When a yeast eats up sugar to create alcohol, it also produces a number of by-products; sulfites among them. This by-product cannot be removed from the wine. Because of this, ALL wines contain sulfites. I tell all of my guests with legitimate sulfite concerns that wine falls into two categories:  wines with naturally occurring sulfites and those with added sulfites. But why would a winemaker add SO2 to a wine?

SO2 inhibits all of the nasty things that can happen to a wine during production. SO2 may be sprayed on grapes as they enter the winery; ensuring the juice from any broken berries doesn’t start to ferment with the ambient yeasts on the skins. SO2 also inhibits the new wine from spoiling, browning, oxidizing, etc. Addition of SO2 to a fermenting wine also renders the yeasts inactive, stopping fermentation at the desired sweetness/dryness/alcohol level. Even before bottling, wine may experience additional SO2 to ensure that this labor of bottled love doesn’t spoil while it sits on the shelf.

What about organic producers? They’re not allowed to add sulfites to their wines, right?  Wrong.  Because adding sulfur does not void a producer’s organic certification, SO2 is utilized in the same methods as above, albeit in a much more conservative manner. While a ‘normal’ bottle of wine may not exceed 350 ppm (parts per million) of SO2, an organic producer hovers at the 100 ppm level.

There is a ‘natural wine’ revolution happening in small pockets of the old-world wine countries.  A few producers are experimenting with the idea of no added sulfites whatsoever. For some terroir driven French, Austrian and Eastern European producers, the addition of SO2 to a wine may dull, augment, or worse, eradicate a wine’s sense of place. The idea is contentious to say the least. Until more producers move in a ‘no-sulfite-added’ direction, there is not a large enough cross-section of wines for the masses to experience the difference.  And depending on the varietal, these natural wines run the risk of degrading very quickly during transport or just in their wait to be consumed. To that effect, natural wines are best consumed young and locally.

I’ll end with a little perspective. The standard bagged salad from the grocer contains more sulfites than a bottle of wine. A handful of dried fruit actually contains 10 TIMES more sulfites than the normal bottle of wine. A 12 oz. can of cola contains about 350 ppm sulfites. That’s the same as an ENTIRE bottle of wine. A small order of French fries from a fast food restaurant contains roughly 2000 ppm. Pizza dough, potato chips, vegetable juice, pickled foods, baked breads, most baked goods, tortillas, jams, jellies, tea, fresh and frozen shrimp, fresh and frozen lobster, cured meats, fresh potatoes, canned and frozen vegetables… ALL of these things contain astronomical amounts of sulfites! And we’re still blaming the wine? Knowledge is power, people, and you should raise you raise your glass of wine tonight to that power.

Wid Kever, IV ABC Fine Wine & Spirits Wine & Spirits Consultant

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