Let's get to the bottom of whether we should think before we drink. Sulphur is a preservative that’s widely used in winemaking for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. It plays an important role in preventing oxidisation, browning, inhibiting bacterial growth and sanitises equipment used throughout the wine making process, not to mention maintains a wine’s freshness. It's great for so many things, yet criticised by some and defended by others.
It's surprising that there isn’t more interest in no- and low-sulphur wines. After all, there is a significant minority who are quite badly affected by sulphites, yet there’s not nearly as much discussion about that as there is about, say, gluten intolerance.
Sulphites feature in most wines; whites more than reds, and sweet wines significantly more than both. The downside is that higher levels can, in some people, provoke headaches and breathing difficulties, though headache can of course also be triggered by the amount you drink.
Even if a wine has no added sulphur (often referred to on the label as NAS), it may well contain some naturally occurring or “free sulphur” as a result of the fermentation process. It’s really the total level you need to be concerned about, which, under EU regulations, can be up to 400mg per litre in the case of sweet wines (200mg per litre is the maximum for whites and 150mg for reds). Natural wine bars will generally stock wines that are a good deal lower than that.
The bad news for those who are looking for NAS wines is that they are not that widely available, they’re generally quite expensive and, if you’re used to the bright fruit flavours of conventionally made wines, you may even not like them (that said, like low-sulphur wines, they generally benefit from decanting).
Consumption of sulphites is generally harmless, unless you suffer from severe asthma or do not have the particular enzymes necessary to break down sulphites in your body, (which can actually change over the course of your life).
A surprising fact is that wine contains about ten times less sulphites than most dried fruits, which can have levels up to 1000 ppm. So if you regularly eat dried fruit and do not have any adverse reaction you are probably not allergic to sulphites.
By comparison, white wine ferments for a shorter time than red wine and the juice doesn't have contact with the grape skins. As a result, white wine tends to have more sugar than red wine, thereby attracting more bacteria. And you know what that means: more sulphites are needed to halt these microbes from growing wild and spoiling the wine.
Still, there are always exceptions to the rule and not all white wines are high in sugar — dry brut and high-tannin white wines like Chardonnay are two such examples. When it comes to sulphites, it's not simply a matter of red vs. white.
It’s worth considering that the result of a wine induced headache could unsurprisingly have something to do with the alcohol content. When you drink wine -- or any other type of alcohol -- the hormone that balances your internal hydration is suppressed. So, you end up going to the bathroom a lot more. This leads to dehydration, which may lead to a headache in the morning. Therefore potentially increasing the quality of your wine, and lowering the quantity could alleviate the risk of headache and enhance the whole wine drinking experience.
Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago USA, and a board member of the National Headache Foundation, said that "Sulphites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don't usually cause headaches". In Champagne's case specifically, some attribute the headache symptoms to the higher than usual sugar content of bubbles. Others will claim some grape strains can trigger headaches by themselves, but the science here is murky to say the least.
Try the revolutionary Üllo wine purifier that uses Selective Sulfite™ technology to filter sulfites and sediments, bringing wine back to its natural state. All you have to do is place it over your glass and pour for a perfect glass every time.
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