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WINE SAVVY: Stop blaming sulfites

David Devere. Clint Austin /

Just because a wine label says “Contains Sulfites” doesn’t mean you’re allergic to it, or that because you got a headache, a flushed face, hot flashes, a scratchy throat or a stuffy nose after drinking wine that it was the sulfites that caused the reaction.

Because it wasn’t.

Sulfites are not a problem. A sulfite allergy doesn’t manifest as any of those reactions, and they certainly don’t give you a red-wine headache.

Here are some truths for you to chew on. Sulfites are a group of food preservative chemicals, one of which is SO2, also known as sulfur dioxide. Sulfites are used in prepackaged or prepared foods such as dried fruit, fruit juices, canned soups, packaged meats, breads, jams, candy, French fries and beer, to name a few. Sulfites help preserve food by inhibiting mold and bacterial growth. The natural yeasts that make wine produce about 10 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites during fermentation. On average, red wine contains about 25 ppm of sulfites; dried apricots 3700 ppm; and French fries 1850 ppm. Curiously, we don’t hear people complaining about French-fry headaches.

Do you see what I’m saying? If you really had an allergy to sulfites that produced the most common wine-attributed sulfite ailments, then most likely all foods would make you sick.

Then why is it on the label?

Because for a small percentage of asthmatics, inhaling of sulfites can cause difficulty breathing. Laws in the United States and Europe have determined that any wine that contains 10 ppm of sulfites should have the disclaimer “contains sulfites” on the bottle.

Because natural and commercial yeasts used in fermentation of wine grapes produces 10 ppm or more of sulfites, this guarantees the notification will be on the bottle. And I suspect that because there is no ingredient list on a wine bottle, sulfites are blamed for any bad effects from drinking wine.

Should there be an ingredient list on wine bottles?

Many, including me, think so because it’s not sulfites we should be worried about — it’s everything else that’s being added to an inexpensive wine to make it palatable. This shouldn’t be a big surprise to anyone. When purchasing wine, you really do get what you pay for, and good quality is — and should be — discernible, measurable and shouldn’t make you sick.

The romantic in me wants to believe wine is an elemental food like fruit, vegetables or meat. That wine is complete and pure, simply fruit juice fermented into wine. My intellectual side laughs at the romantic, as I know wine is an altered manufactured product. Wine makers facing the financial responsibility and reality of a harvest will often add water, sugar, enzymes, alcohol, acids, tannins and even a proprietary (read that as ingredients unknown) product called Super Purple. These along with, of course, sulfites.

They do this because the best juice from the harvest goes into making the winery’s best wines. This juice is labeled under words like “reserve,” “grand” and “premium.” The rest of the juice becomes manipulated — with the least favorable juice receiving the most manipulation.

Many people do have an allergic reaction or sensitivity to wine. Sometimes, it makes people sneeze or makes their cheeks red. Maybe it causes an itchy chin or a headache. But I’d wager that more often than not, the wines that produce those effects are lower quality.

Why? Because they have been altered in some fashion to make them taste OK. You know these wines, they cost just a few dollars and taste rather one dimensional. The winery can get away making a food that makes you sick because it’s cheap, and they know you’ll blame the sulfites.

Stop blaming the sulfites and just buy a better wine by spending just a few more dollars. In more ways than one, your senses will thank you.

David Devere is a licensed wine educator in Minnesota. Contact him at or visit .