I regularly get asked about sulfites. People are sensitive to them. They get headaches from either white or red wine. They blame the sulfites. What’s the real story?
According to the Wine Folly, by Madeline Puckette and Justin Hammack, sulfites (SO2) is a preservative that is either added to wine or present on grapes before fermentation, or both. Wines range from about 10ppm (parts per million) to 350ppm, which is the legal US limit. Wineries in the US are required to label their wine if they contain more than 10ppm, and organic wine can have up to 100ppm. In general, white wines have a higher sulfite level than reds, because the tannin in red wines acts as a preservative so they need less sulfite. Different countries have different labeling requirements, so even though the label may not mention sulfites, that doesn’t mean they are missing. Also, it’s interesting to note that a can of Coke contains 350ppm of sulfites, French fries contain 1900, and dried fruit contains about 3500. And don’t even ask about bacon!
I have recently done a lot of reading on this, and overall found that sulfites can cause asthma symptoms in some people, but do not cause headaches. The headaches are more likely caused by histamines, dehydration, alcohol, and tannins. If you’re bothered by white wines, it’s more likely histamines. If red wines, it’s more likely tannins. My unscientific suggestion, offered with absolutely no credentials or qualifications whatsoever? Try a nice dry Rose (not a cheap white zinfandel), drink plenty of water, and drink in moderation.