We've all had it – the wine headache. Many will relate with that statement, however I'm not talking hangovers. I'm simply referring to those of us that enjoy one, maybe two glasses and are almost immediately subjected to a head full of pulsing misery. The puck doesn't stop there. You may appear flushed, have difficulty breathing, become nauseous, break out in hives, or just feel plain icky. The assumed culprit in most wine related allergic reaction cases: sulfites. Perhaps sulfites get a bad rap because it is the one additive blatantly noted on the wine's label.
Here in the United States, the government mandates that every wine containing sulfites must bear the warning "Contains Sulfites." Just because your trip to Provence resulted in consequence free over indulgence, so much that if someone squeezed you you'd ooze butter and wine, doesn't mean the wine is any safer or that French butter is any better for you. It means you were enjoying your stress-free vacation in a magical place. Beyond our borders, wine makers do not face the same regulations that exist here. The chianti you drink in Italy is identically the chianti you drink here, the only difference being the admonitory stamp. A variety of sulfates, acids, and fining agents are often added to clarify, stabilize, or purify wines. According to Dr. Frederick Freitag, a board member of the National Headache Foundation, "Sulfites can cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don’t cause headaches. It isn't the sulfites more than it is probably one of the hundreds of FDA approved additives allowed in the wine."
Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) is antioxidant in nature. Vintners utilize these properties to impede fermentation and oxidation, prolonging the life and preserving specific profiles of the wine. It is also known for its antimicrobial effects and used in place of harsh chemicals to clean fermentation tanks and other process hardware. Makes total sense. I can only imagine the ailments one would have if their favorite wine was leavened in a Clorox sanitized vat. I reached out to sommeliers, doctors, bartenders, and writers to see where professional opinions reasonably met on the topic. Kara Newman of Wine magazine who I met at Tales of the Cocktail last year recommended I speak with Alice Fiering, a fount of knowledge on vino in general and author of the wine newsletter "The Fiering Line."
"Sulfur is just a little bit of the story," Fiering explains. "There are 200 approved additives allowed in wine. Many are allergens. Sulphur is a natural byproduct of fermentation, but that's very different than adding up to 300ppm of petrochemical derived sulphur – and very different than natural wine that might add up to a 20ppm maximum of elemental derived sulfur.” It appears this subject I've broached is as complex as a sommelier's description of a highly desired vintage. Furrowed in brow by all the scientific chatter, I asked Fiering to lay it on me in layman's terms. I recalled how when living in Germany I could drink these glorious private label Rieslings until I absolutely passed out, but drinking Riesling here invoked a rather unsavory outcome. Her response was shocking.
“White wine is sulfured more than red because it's considered more fragile. Most common rieslings will be sulfured to max. If you are experiencing issues, the sulfites are not what is effecting you.” So then I began researching the bad Cannstatt Stuttgarter rieslings I loved so much to see if I could uncover the difference in those and the varietals known here in the US. My findings revealed that the wines are from boutique wineries, seldom exported out of the Euro zone. Mainly owned by families producing enough for local market sale and personal enjoyment, these vintners do not focus on mass production therefore exercise laxity in the preservatives department. With no anticipation for long shelf life, the additives in these were considerably less than what is average for larger incorporated producers.
Different wineries use different additives to achieve very different things, so the idea that all are the same in chemical regard is absurd. Additives are regulated by volume and there are many of them. If you take a moment to speak with an industry professional, like John Kiefe of Kiefe & Co., you can single out products suited to your needs and discover labels you never even knew existed. Kiefe is a Court of Master Sommeliers certified sommelier, and also bears a Specialist of Wine certification. He modestly admits that while those titles are nice to possess, he attributes his expertise to 15 years in the business. He and business partner Jim Yonkus joined the resurgence of the CBD and purchased a corner location claiming, "We felt the area was underserved as far as wine stores."
When I dropped the topic of sulfites he advised, "There's a lot of misinformation about sulfites and wine; research of their effect on people is not definitive. Sulfites are a natural byproduct of fermentation, so even if they weren't added your wine would still contain them. Sulfites are found in many products on grocery store shelves--dried fruits typically have about ten times as many sulfites as your bottle of wine. So if you have no effects eating them, very likely you're not allergic to sulfites. Also to note is the fact that white wines generally have higher sulfite levels than reds. Personally I believe that most reactions people have from red wine are caused by tannins and histamines. I've heard testimonials of people who took antihistamines before drinking reds and did not suffer their usual symptoms."
I threw around the term organic and asked if there was something out there that doesn't have an inherently high SO2 potential to which he explained, "There is a vast difference between organic and sulfite free wines. Unfortunately the term organic has really been diluted in the marketplace. Having said that, most of the wines we carry are biodynamic (essentially beyond organic) or what's called 'lutte raisonée', a method of sustainable viticulture free of all chemical treatments unless absolutely necessary. Sulfite free wines, where the sulfur has been removed, are very rare as they are not shelf-stable and tend to spoil quickly. Most of the winemakers we represent use very little sulfur dioxide, just enough necessary to keep the wine stable."
Cork and Bottle on Orleans Avenue in Mid-City is an adventureland for the wine novice and, as they put it, "removes snobbery from wines one cork at a time." I stepped inside searching for a rosé and came out with an Australian bottle based on the schooling I received in all of 10 minutes. It went something like: 'regions with more sunshine = bigger grapes = less harsh tannins'. And it was damn delicious. Swirl knows how to attract attention as their events, normally joined by food trucks or a demonstration including educational pairing instructions, are a big hit among those willing to try new things. While I am particularly fond of their cheese and chocolate pairing programs, nothing on their docket has disappointed yet. The Marigny neighborhood's Bacchanal is a self proclaimed 'wine laboratory' where customers can get an epic fill of food, music and culture. Chef Joaquin Rodas serves from the kitchen seven nights a week, and with a well versed staff on hand, allergy issues can be addressed with house recommendations from their lengthy list of libations. Oak is Uptown's destination for live music, impressive wine selections, and smashing food to boot. The talented bar staff don't just serve up killer vine and dine, the handcrafted cocktails are additionally worthy of note.
When it comes to allergic reactions, abstaining from the allergen is the best practice. But I get it – this is New Orleans – happy hour happens. Just remember it's never passé to toast to your health.