Italian-trained oenologist (pronounced Ehno-lo-jist – that’s a wine expert to you and me) Josiah Kahiu answers all your questions on wine.
What are sulfates and should I try to avoid them when drinking wine? Wahida Rehama, 32
Hi Wahida, this is one of those questions that people tend to get very confused about. Firstly, there is no such thing as 100% sulfite free wines. Sulfites develop naturally in very small trace amounts during the winemaking process as a byproduct of fermentation. All wines, beer and cheeses have naturally occurring sulfites and their presence is so small that they are considered harmless to the body.
That said, additional sulfates are sometimes added during the winemaking process. Sulfur dioxide (SO2), is a preservative that is widely used in winemaking as well as in the food industry. The main purpose for which winemakers use sulfites is due to their antibacterial and antioxidant properties. Simply put, they allow the wine to maintain its freshness.
The amount of extra sulfites in wine is very well regulated around the world and any wine with more than 10 parts per million (ppm) has to have the words “contains sulfites” labelled on the bottle.
When it comes to sulfates and the human body, numerous tests have indicated they are generally harmless unless you suffer from severe asthma. The myth that they cause headaches has been debunked by various medical studies. In reality, many foods that we eat such as dried fruits contain much higher levels of sulfites than wines. So why do people think wine causes headaches? Simple: to begin with keep in mind that wine contains alcohol. As with any other alcoholic beverages, if you overdo it or mix different types of alcohol, chances are, you will wake up feeling like you left your brain on the pillow. Wine also includes other compounds such as tannins and histamines that have been shown to give some people headaches.
Another common myth is that red wines have more sulfites that white wines and therefore are more likely to cause headaches. Red wine has tannins, which act as a preservative and therefore require less sulfites than white wines.
So, the next time you are opening a bottle of wine or three during the festive period, do not keep jumping back and forth from red to white, either stick to one or gradually move from white to red. And to guarantee that you wake up feeling fresh and ready for the next glass, water before you sleep is always the best way to go.