Wine Headache? Chances Are It’s Not the Sulfites
Since the government insisted that wine labels include a “Contains Sulfites” warning, folks have been blaming the compound for their wine headaches. Very likely, finds Lettie Teague, the cause is something else
By Lettie Teague
THE LATE SENATOR Strom Thurmond was famous—some might say infamous—for a good many things, including a marathon filibuster against the Civil Rights Act, but the South Carolina congressman’s most lasting contribution may be the two words found on every bottle of wine sold in this country: Contains Sulfites.
The fiercely anti-alcohol senator successfully lobbied for this particular warning to be part of the 1988 Anti-Drug Abuse Act, a continuation of the so-called War on Drugs. Never mind that the average bottle of Cabernet contains far fewer sulfites than, say, a can of tuna or a bag of dried fruit, products that carry no warning at all. (A glass of wine contains roughly 10 mg of sulfites; two ounces of dried apricots, 112 mg.)
This back-label notification has led to a great many misunderstandings among those who attribute health problems, primarily headaches, to sulfites in wine, specifically red wine. Over the years, I’ve received many letters from readers lamenting the headaches they’ve suffered due to their alleged allergy to sulfites.
Often as not these readers wrote in the hope that I could recommend a “sulfite-free wine.” Alas, I could not, since there is no such thing as wine completely free of sulfites, which are inorganic salts produced as a byproduct of the fermentation process.
It is important to note that sulfites are also commonly added post-fermentation to combat oxidation and stabilize the wine. Many winemakers use sulfur dioxide, potassium metabisulfite or some combination of both. The latter is also used in a broad range of foods, from potato chips to shrimp (fresh and frozen) to lemon juice, like that in the small plastic lemon I have in my refrigerator—and perhaps you do too.
My plastic lemon doesn’t carry a sulfite warning, and until approximately 10 years ago, neither did wines sold in Europe. This may be why some American wine drinkers who’ve traveled abroad believe European wines contain no sulfites (another issue I am asked about quite often). They do, but European governments only recently required that wine labels acknowledge the fact.
A reader named Diana emailed me a few months ago about a sulfite-related encounter she’d had with a snobbish (and misinformed) sommelier in Salzburg. The sommelier told her that regulations required European winemakers to add sulfites to bottles for export, which is why Americans got hangovers from European wines stateside. This is, of course, false and hopefully not a reflection on the knowledge and trustworthiness of Salzburg sommeliers.
More important, only a tiny percentage of the U.S. population—less than 1%—actually suffers from true sensitivity to sulfites, and these people are invariably chronic asthmatics, according to David Lang, M.D., chairman of the Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology of the Cleveland Clinic in Cleveland, Ohio.
Dr. Lang told me that in his 28 years of practice, he’s seen only one person who had “true allergic reactions” to sulfites. Such reactions, he added, typically involve shortness of breath and wheezing, not headaches. “Sulfites have been around for centuries and have been very well-tolerated,” Dr. Lang pointed out.
Non-asthmatics who come to Dr. Lang with sulfite-related fears might actually be allergic to something else in the wines, such as proteins or histamines. What’s more, white wine contains more sulfites than does red, so those who suffer from “red-wine sulfite allergy” may be reacting to tannins, which tend to be more significant in red wine than white.
I asked Dr. Lang how he tests whether a patient is actually sulfite-sensitive. He performs what he calls provocative dose testing, administering capsules of small amounts of sulfites in successively higher doses every thirty minutes, and closely monitoring the patient’s reaction.
‘‘Sulfites have been around for centuries and have been very well-tolerated.’’
—allergist David Lang, M.D.
This is the only viable test because blood or skin tests cannot detect a sulfite sensitivity, said Beth Corn, M.D., associate professor of medicine at New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine and part of the faculty of the Department of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. Dr. Corn sees quite a few patients who believe they have wine-related allergies; the real problem, in some cases, probably has more to do with excess alcohol intake than sulfites. “Sometimes patients tell me they don’t have a reaction to wine if they stop at one glass,” said Dr. Corn, who replies, “Then, why don’t you stop at one glass?”
Oregon-based winemaker Rollin Soles of Roco Winery in Willamette Valley has fielded his share of allergy-related questions from wine drinkers. Before founding Roco, Mr. Soles was head winemaker at Argyle winery for many years, where he made high-quality sparkling wine as well as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Some tasters told Mr. Soles that, while most sparkling wines gave them headaches, his never did. Mr. Soles asked where they drank sparkling wine. Often as not, the answer was gallery openings or weddings, where the cheapest sort of wines are often served. Inexpensive wines often have sugars added to boost the alcohol content, and this added alcohol is often what causes the pain.
These headache sufferers were also likely drinking sparkling wine without eating. Drinking even a modest amount of alcohol without food is a sure way to a headache.
The anti-sparkling mind-set is similar to the prejudice against red wines that presumes they are the cause of sulfite-related headaches. Mr. Soles cited a study conducted in the early 1980s by Cornelius Ough, then a professor at University of California at Davis. Professor Ough was interested in tracing the source of red-wine headaches and devised a study in which people with a history of red-wine sensitivity were served both red and white wines as well as white wines colored red. He found that tasters had no more adverse reaction to red wine than to white.
For drinkers who do have a reaction to sulfites or an unshakable fear of one, there are wines with no added sulfites, known as NSAs, which I decided to try. I found about half a dozen bottles in my local wine shops, sometimes in a “no sulfites” section, despite the fact that no-sulfite wines don’t actually exist.
The NSA wines were so hard to find at the ShopRite store in Little Falls, N.J., I asked the salesman to lead me to them. What did he think of the NSA wines? He wasn’t impressed, although he said that the 2013 Badger Mountain Chardonnay, from Washington state, was better than the rest. So I bought a bottle of the Badger Mountain and a few others, both white and red, including the 2013 Mother’s Choice Organic California Red, which has the words “Contains No Detectable Sulfites” emblazoned on the front label just under an ersatz portrait of Whistler’s mother holding a wine glass.
The faux “Whistler’s Mother” was the best part of the wine, which was devoid of any character or flavor and possessed a flat, tinny finish. The same was true of the next two reds, but none were as terrible as the whites: the 2013 Pacific Redwood Organic Chardonnay, Frey Vineyards Organic “Natural White” Table Wine and the recommended 2013 Badger Mountain Chardonnay. They were among the worst wines I’ve ever had. All three looked and tasted like old apple cider and smelled oxidized. Upon tasting the wines, a friend of mine said, “Bring on the sulfites!” There wasn’t a single NSA wine from my selection that I could recommend.
I called a winemaker friend, Kareem Massoud, at Paumanok Vineyards in the North Fork of Long Island, for some professional insight. Mr. Massoud wasn’t surprised to hear my report of the undrinkable wines. “Those wines are completely naked, from an oxidation point of view. They have no protection at all,” he said. “Any winemaker worth his salt knows that wine is susceptible to oxidation.”
I mentioned to Mr. Massoud that several bottles carried advice to refrigerate or store them in a cool, dark place, and that the shop in which I purchased them was actually quite warm, no doubt hastening oxidation. Mr. Massoud wasn’t surprised by this either. “Once a wine is out in the market, there is no guarantee of the storage conditions. Even when you buy from the producer, there’s no guarantee,” he said.
Mr. Massoud has heard complaints about sulfite allergies over the years but thought wine drinkers should probably focus on something else, such as alcohol. Wine has alcohol. And too much alcohol can cause headaches. Perhaps that’s the warning that Senator Thurmond should have lobbied for instead.
See wine videos and more from Off Duty at youtube.com/wsj.com. Email Lettie at firstname.lastname@example.org