I am often asked why almost all wines contain sulphites and if it is really necessary. The reason why most wines have a small amount of sulfur is to protect them from deterioration, mainly from bacterial attacks but also from oxidation. It is used both as a preservative and as an antioxidant so that wine can be stored for a reasonable period of time without deteriorating. Sulphites are also introduced to stop fermentations at the desired time.
Yeasts are found naturally in grapes and therefore also in wine. It is these yeasts that consume grape sugar during fermentation producing bi-products of carbon dioxide and alcohol. At the end of fermentation, most of the yeast cells die and are removed from the vessel by emptying them (pumping the liquid out of a sediment), but some will remain inside. Without adding a controlled amount of sulphite, the wine could soon develop aromas and become “moldy” very quickly.
Winemakers know how much sulphite to add after analyzing their wines, and if the addition was excessive this would be very evident in the nose and overall taste in the glass. The secret is to make your wine as hygienic as possible, preferably in a stainless steel container, and regularly monitor the presence of yeast or bacterial growth in the wine, then act immediately.
Sulfur is a common element that occurs naturally in food, nature and the human body. The term “sulphites” includes the use of sulfur-based preservatives, sodium and potassium metabisulphite and sulfur dioxide gas (SO2). In home winemaking, Campden tablets are the common sterilizing and antioxidant agent (these tablets contain about 60% SO2).
So what is the connection between headache and sulphites in wine?
Headaches have been said to be caused by sulphites in wine, but there is no direct evidence of this. In reality, most headaches occur due to an excess of alcohol indulgence which therefore causes dehydration. If you were one of the few percentages of people who have an allergy to sulphites, you would suffer from severe breathing difficulties rather than headaches, consuming any product that contains them. There are several studies linking sulphites to the cause of asthmatic and respiratory problems.
Some facts about sulphites in wine:
- Almost all wines contain sulphites, which means that most of the winemakers in the main wine-producing countries add sulphites to their wines.
- Very few organically produced wines will be completely sulphite-free. This is a requirement for an organic wine. The main disadvantage is that the wine will not stay long, so it will have to be consumed almost immediately.
- Sulphites in wine don’t cause headaches, there is something else in red wine that does, but that has yet to be fully discovered. The bitter-tasting tannin in red wine is sometimes accused of causing headaches.
- There is a law in most countries that regulates the maximum amount of sulphites allowed in wine. In some of these countries this information must appear on the label.
- A team of Spanish scientists has discovered that by using ozone instead of sulphites, this has led to the maintenance of high levels of antioxidants in wine and therefore the quality
Therefore, in order to avoid headaches and dreaded migraines, the simple answer when drinking wine is to consume less while consuming large quantities of water (glass by glass if possible). Drinking wine with food and appreciating both is my advice!