I looked up frequently asked wine questions and one that kept popping up was the question of sulfites in wine. Many people blame this ingredient on wine headaches. It’s a shame really because it is simply not true.
Sulfites are a naturally occurring ingredient in wine, a byproduct of fermentation. Many winemakers add extra sulfites to protect wine against oxidation and bacterial spoilage, but even organic wine with no added sulfites still contain trace amounts. A very small percentage of people suffer from sulfite allergies (about 1%) but the consequences can be very serious. Because of this, the U.S. (and Australia) requires the labeling of sulfites on wine. Europe does not require labeling sulfites but has started to put it on bottles as well.
A person with sulfite allergies who consumes wine could have an allergic reaction similar to an asthma attack, hives or worse. But the one thing sulfites do not cause is headaches. I can hear you saying, “But how come I get a headache every time I drink wine?” There are many reasons headaches occur (trust me, I know) but the headache people get from wine is probably from histamines. Histamines are found in the grape skins. Red wine has a higher level of histamines because they “macerate” (soak) in the skins to extract more color, flavor and tannins. Among other things, the flavonoids and tannins that release histamines also preserve the wine. By the way, because of these preservation attributes red wine requires less sulfites than white wine.
So what’s the take away? If you are in the +/- 1% of people who suffer from sulfite allergies, you may want to avoid wine. If you are the person who thought your wine headaches were caused by sulfites, consider it may be the histamines and consult with you doctor to see if taking an antihistamine before consuming wine may be the solution. The goal is to have you enjoy your wine without worrying about medicating a bad head later.