This post originally appeared on the Faster Times, generating dozens of comments. Clearly the subject of what does, indeed, cause a red wine headache is still controversial—and it's still up for debate.
A few weeks ago, I posted an article about natural wines—just one of the many "green" wines that are getting more attention (and accolades) these days. There's also certified organic wine. Wine made from organic grapes. Biodynamic wine. And—murkiest of all—"sustainable" wine.
A friend recently posted on Facebook that she'd finally come to the conclusion that she can't drink red wine anymore—she wakes up in the middle of the night with raging headaches. Several people (including me) posted that she's probably sensitive to sulfites and that she should give sulfite-free wines a try. (Another friend posited that it was the histamines in red wine that give people headaches—this actually seems more plausible to me since white wines typically contain more sulfites than red. Reds have more natural preservatives in the form of tannins.)
A discussion ensued about which wines do and do not contain sulfites. Here's the scoop: all wines contain some naturally-occurring sulfites—they are produced by yeast during the fermentation process. In the U.S. any wine that is "USDA Certified Organic" cannot contain any added sulfites. Those organic wines that do contain small amounts of added sulfites are labeled "made from organic grapes." Winemakers with this label add no more than 100 ppm (parts per million) total sulfites—in the form of sulfur dioxide (known as SO2).
QUEST on KQED Public Media.
This recent radio program from KQED in California tries to clear up some of the confusion about all these different eco-wine categories, including this controversial issue of "added sulfites." Reporter Andrea Kissack talks to so-called biodynamic winemaker Tim Thornhill from Parducci Winery and also interviews skeptics who gripe that natural wines have an "organic funk." Towards the end of the segment, she quizzes Luc Erotran from San Francisco's Terroir Natural Wine Merchant who shuns winemakers who are trying to "surf the green wave" and gives his own definition of natural wines.
According to the Organic Wine Journal, the use of added sulfites is a subject of much debate in the organic winemaking community. "Many vintners favor their use, in extremely small quantities, to help stabilize wines, while others frown on them completely," reads the copy on the Organic Wine Journal's site.
While there's nothing inherently wrong with sulfites—they help wines with any kind of shelf life avoid premature oxidation or possible spoilage—they are a chemical and according to the USDA, 1% of the population is sensitive to them. For more on the still-mysterious subject of Red Wine Headaches, check out this article by Marian Burros.