Wine Talk

Snooth User: jamessulis

Sulfites in wine

Posted by jamessulis, Mar 23, 2013.

I recently had a conversation with a friend of mine and she spoke of headaches with both red and white wines. She also hinted that she thought the possible reason is that the sulfites added to retard spoilage were the possible reason for her head problems.  She plans to finish her theory in the near future by experimenting with wines that are both organic and sulfite free. I know fellow Snoothers are not all doctors but with any of my past posts incredible comments and solutions emerged from people with amazing knowledge..


Reply by zufrieden, Mar 23, 2013.

My own experience is that the explanation for these annoying headaches seems unclear; I only know that the cheaper, mass-produced wines (espcially the whites, but increasing many reds as well - even Bordeaux Cru) have a fair amount of added suphite (a natural preservative that exists in most grapes and other fruit anyway).

Dried apples, pizza, beer, raisins and even fresh table grapes have a snort of sulphite or more.  If you get headaches from eating sultanas, dried fruit (for example, snack mixes of nut and dried fruit one often picks up in bulk from supermarkets), then start tracking.  My experience is that cheap white wines are the worst, and I have seen sulphites literally shovelled into wine vats.

So if you get a splitting headache from frozen pizza, cheap white (or red, increasingly) wine, then see if you can correlate the reaction from food and wine for the noxious effect of which we speak.


Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 24, 2013.

99% of the time the reason people get headaches from wine (red, esp) it has NOTHING to do with sulfites but is because red wines contain lots of histamines.  Histamines are naturally occurring (like sulfites) but can be elevated by various processes in winemaking.  But the headaches? Histamines, not sulfites.  Sulfites are actually higher in white wine than red.

Reply by amour, Mar 24, 2013.

One should drink a fair amount of water before having wine.....that's what someone suggested, anyway.

Reply by outthere, Mar 24, 2013.

If there wasn't a line on the label that reads "Contains Sulphites" people would be looking to other reasons for their headaches. JMHO

Reply by GregT, Mar 24, 2013.

James - what they said above is right.

Your friend is going to spend time researching something that has been very extensively researched over the past fifty years. Rather than do her own research, suggest that she just read some of the medical literature. There is no correlation between sulfites in wine and headaches.

Your friend is going to look for wines that are "organic and sufite free"?

I am not aware of any such thing. As far as I know, no wines are sulfite free.

And "organic" has NOTHING to do with the presence of sufites.

The reason is that sulfites are a natural by-product of grape fermentation because sulfur compounds are found in all grapes, whether "organic" or not. Without adding any sulfur, you will still end up with naturally occurring sulfites in amounts ranging from 6 to 40 parts per million, depending on where the grapes were grown.

In the US, the legal limit in wine is 350 ppm but most wines with added sulfites only contain 25-150 ppm.

However, the FDA requires domestic wines, beers and spirits containing more than 10 ppm to state: contains sulfites” on the label, in spite of the fact that the FDA also has sulfites on its "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) list of food additives.

If the wine has less than 10 ppm sulfites, it doesn't have to put "contains sulfites" on the label but that doesn't mean the wine is "sulfite-free”, because as mentioned, all wine naturally contains sulfites.

There are many culprits for what is known as Red Wine Headache syndrome, the most commonly assumed being histamine and tyramine, both naturally present in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels. It causes problmes for some people because they lack an enzyme that helps them metabolize it.  Generally red wines have more histamine than sparkling wines and those usually have more than still white wines.

Tyramine first constricts blood vessels, which causes blood pressure to rise, which can cause headaches. If your friend has those symptoms, she's likely to get the same symptoms from smoked and cured meat, aged cheese, and citrus fruits.

One more thing.

Please tell your friend NOT to do her research by talking to people in wine shops about sulfites. Most of them will not give her correct information. Especially when it comes to anything having to do with "organic" or "natural" wines.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 24, 2013.

There are definitely wines that have no added sulfites, but that doesn't really change the balance too much.  Just means that they are likely to be unstable and should be drunk young.  Sulfites are involved in wine making at so many stages, but the only one that should create free sulfur (not that overuse elsewhere couldn't) is using a small amount right before bottling that can collect as gas under the cork.  But it's such a tiny amount.

Dashe used to make a Zin without sulfites added.  It was called Enfant Terrible.  I think they still make the wine, but it's more conventional.  When it was "unsulfited" it was picked a little greener for (I'm told) higher natural sulfite levels!  It was almost beaujolais like in the first vintage, not very typical of Zin. Went pretty well with the appetizers at Slanted Door, which is where I first had it.  I have had literally a sip since then. 

Winemaking was the first attempt at an industrial food process--get those grapes to do that every year and you have something worth giving up the hunter-gatherer gig for.  Somewhere between the vague claims of the natural wine movement and spoofy industrial wines, there's a happy medium.  My preference is to put it closer to the non-interventionist end, but obviously how you orient your rows of grapes and prune them and trellis them, to whether you take a chance on some lousy yeast that can't finish the job or buy something that produces great wine, to the mix of barrels you age in, the lengths of your macerations, the percent of clusters you leave whole for their stemmy goodness, human intervention just never stops.  Doesn't mean I want Megapurple in my wine, or want it acidulated or chaptalized.  But sulfites are the least of it, both headache wise and intervention wise. 

Reply by zufrieden, Mar 24, 2013.

My comments were strictly intended to encourage some experimenation; I personally do not believe that sulphites are the main culprit.  Many people are actually reacting to colour pigments or even alcohol itself as earlier stated...

Reply by GregT, Mar 25, 2013.

Especially the alcohol!  For some reason, that gets overlooked fairly often.

A white like Riesling, for example, may come in at 11 pct. Then you go into a Zin the next day and that's around 15 pct. Hm m m...

Reply by sp4c3c4d3t1970, Mar 25, 2013.

Can this affect asthma?

Reply by VegasOenophile, Mar 25, 2013.

I submit it could be some or all of the above depending on the drinkers' chemistry.  Histamine, dehydration from the alcohol, sulfites all can be factors.  Hard to pin it on any one cause, but I count myself glad wine doesn't give me headaches... unless of course I overindulge. ;) Cheers!

Reply by amour, Mar 25, 2013.

I have never had a problem with wine!


Reply by EMark, Mar 26, 2013.

I would be very surprised if histimines would not be a problem for an asthmatic.

Reply by Richard Foxall, Mar 30, 2013.

Lots of good advice here:  Watch the alcohol;don't get dehydrated; if you have asthma, watch your meds; and take anti-histamines when appropriate.  (But not Benadryl--mix that with alcohol and you will be sorry if not comatose! Just a little claritin is a better idea.) 

And if wine gives you a headache and makes it unpleasing  to drink, no one says you have to keep on drinking it.  Me, I can't ice skate to save my life, but the rest of my family likes it.  Somethings you just have to sit out.  Wine just seems harder because it gets talked about and is part of social events, but I've got plenty of friends who stopped drinking wine (and, in some cases, other things) for a variety of reasons.  I just do other things with them.

Reply by napagirl68, Apr 2, 2013.

All excellent points.  Sulfite allergy is rare, even sensitivity.  Your friend would have more problems with commonly encountered foods such as pre-cut veggies to preserve freshness, dried fruits, vinegars used for cooking, etc, etc.  Someone asked about asthma.  A small number of asthmatics can have worsening of symptoms from sulfites, but it is not common.  Histamine and tyramine are also found in wines. I would think if your friend had issue with tyramine, she would also have issue with other foods such as chocolate and aged cheeses.  Tyramines are implicated in migraines. 

Histamine is that chemical that makes our noses stuffy and our skin itch.  When I drink wine, I tend to have a stuffy nose.  I do not itch from wine as a rule.  However, for me, I am sensitive to certain wines- and I do not know why.  I think it has to do with one of the many clearing agents used, or some other additive.  I do not think it is histamine proper.

Through my personal research and history, I believe this can be related to a salicylate sensitivity.  There is actually a blood test your allergist can run for this.  It tends to be more common in people with hay fever, allergic dermatitis, and asthma.  There is cross-reactivity with some fruits:  I cannot eat blackberries or plums at all.  I get a typical allergic reaction.  Wine is also on the list of salicylate containing substances.  I have issue with aspirin occasionally.  It is a weird sensitivity, as it tends to be dose dependent and is very individualized- I only have issue with a small number of items on the list, and sometimes have to have them in combination to have an issue.  BTW, headache is one of the symptoms, although not one that I personally have.  Like I said, I have no issue with most wines, but have had major problems with a small few.  It is not related to color or varietal for me at all.  There is one winery in Napa that makes outstanding wine, and I cannot drink any of their wines without resorting to the epi pen.  There is only one or two other wines I have had an issue with. 

Lastly, a good point was made about not forgetting the alcohol component. Dehydration can happen subtly and quickly, so it is wise to drink a fair amount of water if one feels headaches are a problem.  Also, there are some that have a problem metabolizing alcohol, but they have other symptoms typically, such as flushing and racing heart.

Is it just wine, or can your friend drink vodka?  Vodka, if drunk in moderation, is tolerated well by those who suffer headaches due to the low level of substances known as cogeners..  these substances that are produced during fermentation have been blamed for hangovers.... red wine has more than vodka, so that I why I ask that question. 

This is all sounding very deja vu, and I think I have written it all in a past thread!

Reply by napagirl68, Apr 2, 2013.

I also wanted to mention that low quality wines can give me a killer headache/hangover.  Obviously, I do not want to drink crap wine!  I recall one event I posted here years ago where a friend brought over a mass-produced, low end wine that she INSISTED I try because it was SOOO good.  Well, I tried it, it wasn't good.  Wasn't horrible tasting, but I could tell the lack of quality.  I had a very small amount, and ended up with a really bad headache the next day. 

When I hear amateurs (I am not sure if your friend is an amateur) say that wine/champagne gives them horrible headaches/hangovers, I then asked what TYPES of wines/champagnes they have had.  If they tell me 2buck upchuck or Cooks shampane ... well... that speaks volumes.  When introduced to a really nice, well crafted piece of liquid art, these headaches can just disappear!

Reply by GregT, Apr 3, 2013.

Maybe because you're in such emotional shock at the price you paid, you don't even notice your physical reactions!

BTW James, nobody else commented, but I do like your friend. 

Reply by JonDerry, Apr 3, 2013.

Makes barrel tasting all the more special, assuming additives are not yet present.

Reply by zufrieden, Apr 5, 2013.

Is that image a facsimile of your friend, James?



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