Berger: The truth about sulfites

The most-asked questions I get from year to year are about the health effects of wine.

One such letter came in the other day and it was almost identical in tone to those I have gotten in the 38 years I have been writing about wine. It came from a man who had just returned from a European trip.

He wrote, “We love French wines since they don’t have any sulfites, and my wife gets headaches from sulfites. That’s why we don’t drink California wines. Why do (California wineries) put sulfites in their wines?”

Questions about sulfites have been swirling around for decades, and the truth is a lot simpler than you might think. Almost all wines made in this world have sulfites added, including French wines. This is true for all U.S. domestic wines as well as almost all wines from every country in the world.

Moreover, even in wines that say they have “no sulfites added,” there is still a small level of natural sulfites, which are a byproduct of fermentation.

Most U.S. wines have a “contains sulfites” statement on the bottles. So must all wines from France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, etc., if they are sold in the United States.

All those wines have roughly the same level of sulfites, give or take a few parts per million, as do domestic wines. The fact that you do not see the “contains sulfites” label on the wines you buy in France is simply that most other governments don’t require that the statement appear on the bottles. In fact, in many countries it’s illegal to state that sulfites are used.

Some people accuse red wine of giving them a headache, and they accuse sulfur as the culprit. The red wine headache (also known as “Red Head”) is a real syndrome, but thus far scientists have been unable to determine exactly what triggers it. But almost surely it is not the sulfites that are giving people headaches. That much has been proven.

Some people assume that wine made from organic grapes is a solution to Red Head syndrome. The problem here is that even wine made from organically grown grapes (such as Fetzer’s Bonterra line) also contains nearly as much sulfites as any other wine.

That then leads to people seeking to find a wine that is “certified organic,” assuming that such a wine will be without sulfites, or have a very low level of sulfites.

But that may not be the solution anyway, since wine without sulfites added generally declines quickly. Sulfites are a preservative, used for literally thousands of years, that keeps wine tasting fresh and tasty.

Wines with no sulfites added at all are fragile things and will decline in quality shortly after they are bottled.

As to the effect sulfur has on the human body: it’s almost negligible when found in wine, even to asthmatics, who can be particularly sensitive to sulfites.

That’s because the pH of wine ranges from about 2.8 (the very lowest I have ever seen) to about 3.9, and sulfites are only dangerous at very low pH levels, such as 2.3. At that level, you’re talking about something as tart as pure lemon juice. Such a wine would be undrinkable and no winery would make such a thing.

Even asthmatics rarely have any symptoms from the sulfites in wine. I know of no such cases.

Some people have a mild reaction to the histamines in wine, red wine particularly. (A friend who works in the wine industry has such a reaction and after two or three glasses of wine, he begins to sneeze a lot!)

Someday, science may find a way to preserve wine quality without the use of any sulfites, but since sulfites have been used for literally thousands of years with almost no known scientifically confirmed negative side effects, I doubt anybody is working to find a substitute for it.

Wine of the Week: 2013 Husch Gewurztraminer, Anderson Valley ($15): The spied aroma of lychees and grapefruit indicates the wine will be sweet, but this may be the driest version of Gewurz that this longtime Mendocino County producer has made. Lovely dry entry to marry with lighter seafood dishes using floral herbs like bay leaf, mint and tarragon.

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