Now that sulfites are included on every wine
label, everyone seems a little concerned. Wall Street Journal wine
columnist Will Lyons looks at the evidence and finds that they're not
all that bad
MY NOSE STARTED to quiver as my eyes, already bloodshot, screwed up in reflex in preparation for an almighty, juddering sneeze. I was sitting in a café on the outskirts of a major wine growing region in France. It was evening and after a long day's wine tasting we had finally ordered our food and were ready to unwind and enjoy the first glass of wine that we didn't have to spit out. Only I was sneezing, uncontrollably.
"I do apologize," I said to the rest of the table, a mixed company of négociants and wine importers. "It must be all that sulfur in the young wine we tasted."
"Nonsense!" came the riposte. "There was certainly sulfur in the wines you tasted but it's highly unlikely that it's causing your sneezing fit," said one importer, with the weary expression of someone who has been down this road before.
He was right. Later, I decided to
research likely causes for my sneezing and found that it could have been
the alcohol, or perhaps the histamine found in red wine or, since it
was early spring, possibly pollen…. There were all manner of things it
could have been, but it was very unlikely to be sulfur.
So why had I mentioned it? Why is sulfur seen as a boogeyman? As British wine journalist Jamie Goode writes in his book "Wine Science": "Sulfur dioxide in wine is one of the most frequently discussed and yet simultaneously one of the most frequently misunderstood issues in winemaking."
I blame the back labels. "Contains sulfites" just doesn't sound right, especially considering many other things have far higher levels than wine—dried apricots, for instance, or commercial orange squash.
Briefly, sulfites are a group of sulfur compounds several of which are commonly used as preservatives, including sulfur dioxide and sodium metabisulfite. Sulfites help to protect wine from oxidization or from turning into vinegar, and most wines contain them as a permitted additive, usually added at bottling or at the end of fermentation.
In a tiny percentage of people, sulfites—even in minute quantities—can trigger an allergy-like reaction, and the risk of this is considerably higher for asthmatics. But adverse effects from wine, such as a runny nose and a sore head, can be due to a multitude of factors. It's rather like port, which is always blamed for the headache the morning after—unfairly, as it is usually the three or four different drinks one had before the port was passed round at the end of the night.
Anyone concerned about sulfites should look for "no added sulfites" on the wine label. One might also turn to natural wines, a movement begun in the 1980s by Beaujolais négociant Jules Chauvet, which attempts to use little or no sulfites.
Proponents of natural wine argue that sulfites freeze the wine in time, preventing further evolution, while critics argue that the wines tend to taste faulty and that age-ability is an issue. I have no strong feelings on either side. It is quality and drinkability I am interested in.
If you are worried about sulfites in wine and think you may be sensitive to them, I would suggest that you go and buy some dried apricots. If they make you sneeze, you may have a problem with sulfites. If not, I would have that second glass of wine.