THE BLAME GAME
If I had a “tenner” for every time I’ve heard people say that “the sulphites in red wine give me headaches”, I reckon I’d probably be on a plane to the Bahamas right now! Rightly or wrongly, sulphur dioxide (SO2) is often blamed for hangovers and headaches on the morning after a little bit of overindulgence, but a little bit of factchecking quickly proves the urban myth.
In this day and age, terms such as “organic” and “preservative free” are buzz words that are sending cash registers ringing (or perhaps, beeping) in supermarkets and food stores across the country. After all, surely any chemical compound or additive must be bad for us? And conversely, biodynamics and “natural products” must be okay? One only needs to look at the proliferation of organic stores around the country to assess consumers’ attraction to this hypothesis.
While preservatives such as sulphites are often used in winemaking, wine will actually also produce its own natural preservatives in the form of alcohol, tannin and acidity. Typically, red wine has more of these “natural” preservatives than white wines. Perhaps that’s why some of my friends insist that its only red wine which gives them “sulphite headaches” rather than white wine. Ironically, white wines will typically contain more sulphur dioxide (also known as preservative 220) than white wines! The reality for winemakers is that red wines need less preservative than whites because of the tannins which are released from skin contact during the winemaking process.
When it comes to winemaking, the terms “organic” and “bio-dynamic” do not mean that a wine is preservative free. In the winemaking process, sulphites can occur naturally during the fermentation process. In fact, the level of sulphites that can be produced due to yeast fermentation can be enough to exceed the threshold for disclosure of 10mg/l without anything being added!
What is perhaps not well understood is that sulphur dioxide is present in extraordinarily low quantities in most red wines. To put it in perspective, by content, dried fruit or French fries will normally contain at least 10 or 20 times more sulphur dioxide by volume, than a dry red wine. These sulphites give great protection against oxidisation to wine but must be labelled as containing sulphites if there are 10ppm or more after bottling.
Whilst there is a small group of people who are allergic to sulphites, for the vast majority of bon vivants, a headache or hangover is more likely to be caused by the alcohol, dehydration or the phenolics (due to skin contact and naturally occurring tannins). Ironically, despite their propensity to deliver headaches with over-indulgence, phenolics are an anti-oxidant which is widely believed to be good for your health in appropriate doses!
For this reason, dry red wines are often considered to be far less “bad” for your health than white wines (which can sometimes have high levels of sugar as well). As I pen this article, I’m sampling a glass of the Yangarra 2017 Grenache from Mclaren Vale. It’s claimed to be “preservative free” and to have had minimal intervention in the winemaking process, but it’s probably not up to the normally high standard of a Mclaren Vale Grenache. I’m very keen on grenache from the Barossa Valley and Mclaren Vale (where there are some of the world’s oldest grenache vines dating back to 1850). The Yangarra Grenache is certified organic, has had no addition of preservatives and has been made from grapes which were grown without the use of herbicides or pesticides. It’s only a medium-bodied wine with savoury raspberry characters on the palate, a custard curd edge and a slightly funky finish, but without the lively juiciness that we often see in grenache from our premium producers. A bit disappointing, so I think I’ll look for a grenache which labels “contains sulphites” next time I’m shopping for a good one and just go easy on the refills!
Travis Schultz is the principal of Travis Schultz Law but he has been moonlighting as a restaurant reviewer and wine writer for the past 15 years.