One of the most frequently asked questions we get is along the lines of "I love wine, but the sulfites give me a headache".
Since 1988 American labels have legally been required to include on the label the fact that the wine contains sulfites. And since then sulfites have been blamed for pretty much any headache, tummy ache, stuffy nose, or any other ailment that happens right after drinking some wine. But today we are going to set the record straight on sulfites and hopefully clean up its reputation.
To clarify, sulfites are added to wine before and after the fermentation process and can be added at several other points between the end of fermentation and bottling. We add sulfites to protect the wine from oxygen and bacteria. Without it you would have a bottle of vinegar in a few months instead of that great bottle of wine you've been saving. Sulfites also naturally occur during fermentation. So there are some wines that try to capitalize on the bad name that sulfites have by putting "No sulfites added" on the label. But, because they occur in fermentation, there is no such thing as a sulfite free wine.
First of all, yes, there is such thing as a sulfite allergy. And in no way is any of this meant to discredit the fact that it exists. However, less than 1% of Americans suffer from a sensitivity to sulfites, and the bulk of these people are chronic asthmatics. Also, there are a number of foods that contain a much higher level of sulfites than wine including dried fruits, molasses, bottled lemon and lime juice, sauerkraut, dried potatoes, lunch meats, and many more. And lastly, a true sulfite allergy manifests as chest congestion, asthma, or hives and not a headache or tummy ache.
That being said, there are a few other factors that can cause someone not to feel so well after drinking wine. The number one reason, and it may sound like we are kidding, is that the person just drank too much. We've all done it. We'll all do it again. But if you wake up the next day with a headache and not feeling so hot, we can't really blame sulfites for that one.
Some legitimate factors contribute to a not-so-hot feeling after one or two glasses. The biggest culprit is sugar. Do you get a headache when you drink cheap "champagne" but found that when you drink the expensive stuff you feel fine? The cheaper sparkling wines add sugar to boost alcohol levels and make their product a little sweet. Sugar and alcohol never play well and a headache is sure to ensue. One of the more common actual allergic reactions from wine are caused by histamines in the barrels that the wine is aged in. After a glass or two you may feel your nose getting stuffy and a slight sinus headache. This is most common with people who already have environmental allergies such as hay fever. This is much more common with red wines. Whereas the sugar headache is more common with sweet whites.
Our advice is always the same. There is a slight chance that you have an actual allergy to something in wine. But if you remember to pace yourself, make sure that a few glasses of wine are not the only thing in your belly, and drink a glass of water for every glass of wine you have, you will have a good night's sleep and wake up feeling fine. We are always glad to answer any questions you might have about this or anything wine related. You can always use the "Contact Us" page on our website.