Wine Word of the Week: Sulfites

By Kori ~ January 29th, 2009.

winepeeps_wotw_2-1b3This week’s Wine Word of the Week is sulfites.

Official definition from Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine:
Sulfite and bisulfate, the negatively charged ions liberated when sulfurous acid dissociates…. The analytical method usually used for the measurement of sulfite determines all of the various forms which are active in terms of smell, effect on yeast and bacteria, and potential danger to asthmatics. The term sulfites, or sulphites, is therefore used on wine labels (as in ‘Contains sulfites/sulphites’) as an inclusive term for free sulfur dioxide, sulfurous acid (hydrated sulfur dioxide), bisulfate ion, sulfite ion, and some forms of complexed sulfite.

Layman’s terms from Kori:
While Ms. Robinson gives a good technical definition of sulfites above, I would like to use this space to debunk the commonly held myth that sulfites in wine, especially red wine, cause headaches. In fact, all wine has naturally occurring sulfites. So don’t be confused by the label that says, “No sulfites added.” That does not mean “no” sulfites. Red wines actually have the least amount of sulfites added because they already have plenty of natural preservatives from the grape skins used to make them. If you truly believe that it is sulfites causing your headaches, beware of salsa, dried fruits, packaged cookies, and even orange juice. They all have much higher levels of sulfites than red wine. While sulfites often get the blame for headaches after drinking red wine, doctors say that a more likely culprit is histamines.

For more on the topic of wine and headaches, see our post from last February entitled Do you get headaches when you drink wine?

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