Ask the Farmer
Today we have John Salisbury from Salisbury Vineyards who farms wine grapes in the cool coastal region of San Luis Obispo answering a wine related question from a Winery Advisor member.
Question: “Why the heck do you wine guys put sulfites in the bottle? It gives me headaches. Especially red wines. That is why I drink white wine. Also, when I was in France, I drank all types of wines because they don’t put sulfites in their wines, and I had no problem.”
A guy with a headache.
Answer: Well, I see at least four myths, in that mouthful, that I will try my best to dispel.
First of all what are sulfites? They prevent microbial growth in grapes and wine. They are natural compounds in the vineyard, and in every wine, because they come in with the grapes. A side note; because it has been used for years and is cheap most vineyards use sulfur as a fungicide for Powdery Mildew, either in a spray, or as dust, whereas we use an organic mineral oil (expensive) instead. As a result, we have considerably cut down the amount of sulfur that comes in with our grapes. Some wineries are requiring growers to stop using sulfur several months before harvest so as to cut down on how much is artificially added to the grapes before delivery to the winery.
Sulfur is added to the wine to protect it against oxidation (browning) and stops the growth of mold and bacteria organisms, including yeast, from growing in the wine. All wines have a little sugar left in the wine making process, so a little leftover live yeast, which converts sugar into alcohol, could start the fermentation process all over again in the bottle. This is the reason why you do not see a lot of bottling when grapes are being crushed because the natural yeast that is flying around everywhere could drop into an open filled bottle prior to corking. Long story short: without sulfites you would have vinegar. That is why it is important to drink pure organic wines without sulfites within a year (18 months from bottling at best).
As for headaches, white wines usually have more sulfites than red wines. Particularly
sweeter white wine because more sulfites are needed to keep the higher remaining sugar from fermenting. Studies have been done to show that people who get Red Wine Headache (RWH) do not seem to have a problem with white wine. The reaction to sulfites is mostly an allergic one (problem with breathing) and not a headache. Do you get a headache when you eat brightly colored dried fruit? A glass of wine usually has around 80mg/L of sulfites, whereas a small 2 oz. serving of dried fruit has around 112 mg/L of sulfites. What about fruit juices, syrups, baked goods, pizza dough, processed vegetables, cheeses, and many prescription drugs which could have up to 6000 ppm of sulfites? You don’t hear a lot about “Pizza Dough Headaches”.
There are studies being done on RWH, for those few who do get it, to see if the problem is in the tannins (mouth puckering chemical) because they release serotonin that may cause headaches. But then again, who complains about chocolate, tea, or soy headaches – all of which also contain a bunch of tannins? Histamines are quite a bit higher in red wine than white but most problems are because of a human enzyme deficiency combined with alcohol. If you suffer from RWH, it will happen within 15 minutes of drinking wine. Not several hours later. That is called a hangover. Studies are being done to get to the bottom of this problem.
Every country in the world puts sulfites in their wines. The difference is they are not required to have “Contains Sulfites” on their label. The U.S. government, in its infinite wisdom, decided we needed to advise the less than one percent of the population (and how few of those drink wine?) who might be allergic to sulfites, that there is more than 10 ppm in the bottle. Naturally, after reading the warning, those who get headaches assume it is a sulfite problem.
It has been suggested that you take an aspirin, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, or black tea before drinking wine to see if that stops the problem. Also, eat food and drink a glass of water for every glass of wine for a dilution factor especially if it is going to be a long party. Try different brands, grapes, places grown, and perhaps try lighter reds like Pinot Noir, or our Pinot Naturale (white Pinot) or Rosea di Pinot, which do not have long contact time with the skins and seeds which is where the tannins are concentrated. The big reds (Cab, Zin, etc.) are usually soaked in the skins for over a week during fermentation and this might be a problem.
Now, if you are still not convinced about the headache/sulfite info above and still want to get out the sulfites – and I am not advising it but have seen it done successfully – 1milliliter of 3% over-the-counter hydrogen peroxide (yeah, the stuff of blondes) will remove the sulfites in a bottle of wine. For what ever that is worth!
“If God forbade drinking, would He have made wine so good?” Cardinal Richelieu