Liquids: Whine Country

Every year at my New Year’s Eve party, someone inevitably requests white wine, insisting that red wine—or certain kinds of red wine—brings on a headache. A friend of mine claims she can drink any red wine except Rioja, a tempranillo-based beauty from Spain, because it gives her migraines, while another is convinced that even one sip of merlot makes his head ache. Ask them why and they all blame the same culprit: sulfites.


Every year at my New Year’s Eve party, someone inevitably requests white wine, insisting that red wine—or certain kinds of red wine—brings on a headache. A friend of mine claims she can drink any red wine except Rioja, a tempranillo-based beauty from Spain, because it gives her migraines, while another is convinced that even one sip of merlot makes his head ache. Then there’s my mom, who won’t touch champagne, even though she can drink five glasses of chardonnay (one of the primary grapes in bubbly) without missing a beat. Ask them why and they all blame the same culprit: sulfites.
Sulfites, those once obscure organic compounds that Mother Nature uses to prevent microbial growth on grapes (as well as on onions, garlic, and many other plants), have become the wine industry’s most notorious villain. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even requires that all wines exceeding a certain level of sulfites announce it on their labels.

It’s all pretty odd. The FDA estimates that sulfites cause reactions in just one percent of the U.S. population. So if it’s not sulfites (or hangovers), what ails all these wine-loving whiners? And why do sulfites get the blame?

To understand, first let’s talk about the alleged bad guys. Practically every living organism produces sulfites when amino acids are metabolized. In the case of grapes, sulfites form on the fruit’s skin during the winemaking process. Winemakers then add more sulfites to prevent the wine from spoiling. (In fact, they’ve used them since the 16th century, when Dutch traders discovered that a little bit of sulfur in wine went a long way toward keeping it from turning to vinegar during sea voyages.) Sulfites also prevent those “off” aromas and flavors typically found in brownish-colored homemade wines. Most winemakers add them to their product three times: initially, to stun mold and bacteria on the grapes; then before aging, to keep yeasts from taking over and turning the wine into sherry; and finally just before bottling, to protect and extend the life of the wine.

Indeed, nearly everyone—with the notable exception of Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County, California, one of the oldest organic/biodynamic wineries in the country—uses sulfites. Hence the confusion over the ominous “contains sulfites” warning, which is on every wine whose sulfite levels exceed 10 parts per million. That’s often just slightly higher than the level found in a wine to which no sulfites have been added.

Sulfites also are used in a heck of a lot of things that you never hear about. They’re added to prescription drugs, dried fruits, pickles, and soy sauce, among other products. (That’s why unsulfured dried apricots are a brown-black color: The bright orange ones contain 2,000 milligrams of sulfites.) So unless you also have an adverse reaction to white wine, Chinese food, raisins, or frozen French fries, you’re probably not allergic to sulfites.

What’s causing the problem, then? The federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) thinks the devil in the bottle could be one of several other common additives, such as egg whites, casein (milk protein), and isinglass (fish bladder—yes, fish bladder), which are often used to clarify wines. The TTB was so concerned that in July it proposed a measure that would require wineries to declare allergens on their labels—probably on the back, where pregnant women are warned not to operate jackhammers in conjunction with drinking. (This is great news for the long-derided sulfites, but terrible news for fish bladder futures.)

Other suspects are commercially prepared tannins, derived from sources such as chestnuts and added to give younger reds and many whites greater heft. Like sulfites, tannins are invisible organic compounds found in grape seeds and skins. They give red wines their color and power, and, in the case of young reds, that bitterness and puckery sensation—the same effect imparted by a cup of black tea, which also contains tannins. In addition, they encourage blood platelets to release serotonin, which can cause headaches if enough of it gets into your system.

That’s what happens to John Scharffenberger, a California winemaker lauded for his powerful Eaglepoint Ranch syrahs and his eponymous chocolate. Scharffenberger can drink sparkling wine, white wine, even aged red burgundy, but other reds give him headaches and acute sinusitis. “The irony is not lost on me,” he says with a laugh. After several tests, his allergist informed him that he suffers from intolerance to tannin-related amino acids in red wine. Scharffenberger can drink aged burgundy for two reasons: first, because the amino acids and tannins mellow with time, and second, because pinot noir (the red grape of burgundy) has less of the offending substances than cabernets, merlots, and zinfandels.

If you think tannins are doing you in, the best thing to do is to get to know which wines have high levels and test your reaction to them. Start with whites, then move to gamays and pinot noirs, then merlots, then cabernets, syrahs, and zinfandels. And before you sip, consider taking a prostaglandin inhibitor, such as aspirin, ibuprofen, or Sudafed. These over-the-counter drugs can prevent the adverse reactions that cause headaches and/or inflammation.

In the end, determining whether you’re having a reaction to sulfites, tannins, or anything else in the wine is easy: If you get a headache before midnight this New Year’s Eve, it’s the wine’s fault. If you get one the next morning, you have only yourself to blame.