It’s Probably Not A Sulfite Allergy

Dashe Grapes SquareNorthwest Wine: Reaction to red wine? It’s probably not a sulfite allergy

If you have a reaction to red wine, but not white, then your problem is probably not a sulfite allergy. In most cases, there are more sulfites in white wine than in red.

Almost every day, someone asks me about sulfite-free wines. Sulfite allergy is a serious issue for folks who suffer from it, but the FDA estimates that only about 1 percent of people have a sensitivity to sulfites, and an even smaller percentage are sensitive enough to have a severe reaction.

Symptoms can include:

Respiratory problems, or asthma-like symptoms. Asthmatics have a higher rate of sensitivity.

Hives, swelling and even anaphylaxis, though this is rare.

Most wines contain sulfites because they are a natural byproduct of fermentation. Sulphur also may be added to a wine several times during fermentation.

A winemaker who doesn’t want to allow native yeast fermentation may use sulphur to kill yeasts and bacteria so he can choose a cultured yeast that produces a faster, more predictable fermentation.

Winemakers also use sulfites to stop malolactic fermentation, which is a bacterial fermentation that changes the acid in the wine from malic acid to lactic acid. Malic acid is more tart, so it is preserved in most white wines to keep them bright and fresh. But red wines are allowed to go though malolactic fermentation to soften their acidity.

When making sweet wines, winemakers can add sulphur to stop the alcoholic fermentation before the yeast has converted all of the natural sugar to alcohol.

If you have a stronger reaction to red wine than you do to white (as many people do), it’s probably not because of sulfites. Dry white wines can legally contain over 200 parts per million, whereas most regulations keep reds in the 150 range. Sweet wines can be as high as 400. By comparison, dried fruits can contain up to 1,000 parts per million.


If you get headaches after drinking red wine, you are not alone. But sulfites are not the culprit. If you are getting headaches within minutes of drinking red wine and without having even had one full glass, then you are suffering from the phenomenon known simply as Red Wine Headache.

Researchers and food scientists agree that it is real, but they don’t know what causes it.

The most likely explanation has to do with the skins of the grapes. Red wines are fermented with grape skins. That’s where they get their color. Most white wines are pressed immediately after harvest, and skins are removed.

Grape skins contain histamines and tannin. If the histamines bother you, take a non-drowsy antihistamine before drinking wine. That may help. If the problem is with the tannins, some red wines have less tannin than others. Pinot Noir, for example, generally sees less contact with grape skins during fermentation than Cabernet.

Keep track of which wines do and do not cause a reaction.


Farmers know that excessive chemical intervention in their vineyards can severely damage the quality of their wines.

But even organic farmers have to deal with the technical aspect of winemaking, and many still use at least a little bit of sulphur, especially with white wines.

Some wines from organically farmed grapes don’t indicate it on the label because the U.S definition for organic wine doesn’t allow for the addition of sulfur. If any sulphur is added during fermentation the label can only say, “Made from organic grapes.”

In the European Union, sulphur is considered a natural element and is permitted in certified organic winemaking.


Article Source:  The News Tribune

New Tribune - Author LeilLeil Cardoza has been the inventory manager for 3 years at the Boise Co-op Wine Shop. His column appears in Life on the second and fourth Wednesday each month. He also writes a blog about wine: Email your wine questions to