Wine terms: Sulfites
Sulfites are the great urban myth of the wine business. Supposedly, evil American winemakers, chanting and swaying over bubbling cauldrons of crushed grapes, dump tons and tons sulfites into the wine. The result? Wine drinkers with really bad headaches.
“I’m convinced most of this is auto-suggestion,” says Tom Mansell, a PhD candidate in chemical engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., whose research has looked at the relationship between sulfites and wine headaches and writes well on the subject. “Wine labels have to list whether sulfites are added to wine, so when consumers see that, they assume it causes the problems.”
Sulfites are chemicals that include sulfur dioxide and that occur naturally in wine and many other foods, including shredded coconut and dried apricots (the latter of which has 10 times the sulfites of most wines). Winemakers also add sulfites to help wine age, enhance the color, and retard bacterial growth. There are wines that don’t contain added sulfites; in the U.S. these are labeled organic (and not to be confused with wine made from organic grapes). Often, these so-called natural wines have problems of their own. Writes my pal Dave McIntyre: “Without human intervention, wine naturally turns to vinegar.”
About ½ of the 1 percent of Americans who have an allergic reaction to sulfites have a reason for concern. For the rest of us, the headaches probably have other causes:
• Red wine vs. white wine. Given the way wine is made, white wines made to age require more added sulfites than red wines do. Yet many consumers say that red wine is the one that causes their pain.
• European wine vs. U.S. wine. One part of the sulfite myth is that European winemakers don’t add sulfites, so European wines cause fewer headaches. That isn’t true, says Mansell. What is true is that U.S. wines may have as much as 15 percent more alcohol by volume than European wines, which may account for the headaches.
• Lifestyle differences. In Europe, meals take hours and wine is sipped and enjoyed. In the U.S., dinner takes half an hour and the wine is gulped. In addition, Americans drink more caffeine (in soft drinks and coffee) than Europeans. This dehydrates us, and makes us more susceptible to the side effects of alcohol.
Says Mansell: “If the sulfites in dried apricots don’t give you a headache, then the sulfites in wine won’t.”
The photo is from ddrccl of Toronto, via stock.xchng, using a Creative Commons