wine, red wine, sulfites, holiday drinking

Should You Drink Organic Wine?

There's a lot of fuss about sulfites; experts tell us if it's warranted.

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Making smart decisions when it comes to your health means knowing the ingredients in not just your food, but your drinks, too—and that includes wine. If you’ve ever looked at a label, you’ve likely noticed the words, ‘contains sulfites’. The naturally-occurring compounds are produced during fermentation, mostly in the form of sulfur dioxide. Generally, they’re used to preserve wine and prevent oxidization, but some people have blamed them as the source of wicked wine hangovers or even sneezing. 

“There are a lot of misconceptions about sulfites,” says James Kornacki, Ph.D., founder of a new gadget Ullo, which claims to remover a majority of sulfites from wine. Because of the labeling—and reports of negative reactions to sulfites beyond allergies—many people fear them.

Thus, there has been an overall reduction in sulfites in a lot of wines over the past few decades, and a movement to grow organic and biodiocnamic grapes that have lower levels of sulfite or no added sulfites at all, says Kevin Ring, the wine and beverage manager and sommelier at Twin Farms resort in Vermont.

But are sulfites something to worry about? There is a very small group of people who are indeed negatively affected by them. According to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), about less than 1 percent of the population has a sulfite allergy. Most of those cases are asthmatic, meaning you break out in hives and will have difficulty breathing within a half hour of exposure.

“Those who are ‘allergic’ to sulfites suffer from a deficiency in the natural enzyme that breaks down the 500 milligrams of sulfites that we all create every day in our bodies,” explains Andrew L. Waterhouse, Ph.D., a well-known wine chemist and professor of enology at UC Davis.

If you don’t have an allergy, they may not be so worrying: “The rest of us can handily dispose of the 15 milligrams of sulfites in a glass of wine.” Plus, many foods—like dried fruits, pickles, and horseradish—contain more sulfites than wine does.

In many cases, allergy-like symptoms from drinking wine are actually a reaction to the alcohol or histamines (produced by yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process), not the sulfites.

Even more: “What people don’t know is that wine contains quite a few other things that are added and don’t have to be listed on the label,” say Ring.

If you want to cut back on sulfites (after all, wines loaded with them tend to be cheaper and more processed), consider a device like Ullo or go the organic route and consider natural winemakers. Ring says Donkey & Goat, Dirty & Rowdy, Montebruno, Eyrie Vineyards, Chateau Le Puy, and La Garagista are all options to consider.