Checking label is nothing to sneeze at

Wines / sulfites

By Marissa Block

A reader recently asked if I could find wine that doesn’t contain sulfites, saying "all the white wines I can find say ‘contains sulfites,’ and that is supposed to be what makes you have an allergic reaction."

My first thought was to turn to organic wine, since no chemicals are used in the process of growing the grapes, such as pesticides and fertilizers. However, I was proven wrong. According to, there is no such thing as wine that does not contain sulfites, including organic wine.


Sulfite is a bi-product that occurs naturally in all products that use a fermentation process, including beer, bread, cheese and even some medications. While there are wines that have no added sulfites, all wines contain at least some traces.

Fermenting yeast on grape skins naturally generates sulfites as the grapes ripen, says

In wine, sulfur dioxide is sometimes added to preserve the wine’s color and flavor, to inhibit the growth of bacteria and to prevent fermentation. Others are used to preserve the color of shrimp, vegetables and dried fruits.

The use of sulfites, however, is strictly regulated, if not banned in some products, by the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA also requires that any products containing added sulfites must have a warning label.

Modern winemakers, if adding sulfur dioxide to prevent oxidation of the wine, use only the smallest amount so that only those with a hyper-sulfite sensitivity might be affected, wine experts say.

Although the true number will never be known, only a small amount of the human population, less than 1 percent, is highly sensitive to sulfites. About 5 percent of that number are asthmatic, according to FDA estimates.

On the other hand, a larger number of people, about one out of every 100, do have a sensitivity to sulfites and might experience heartburn, hives, cramps or other side effects after consumption.

For sulfite-sensitive consumers, recommends organic wines or wines with only minimal amounts of added sulfites — these should cause no problems. Sweet wines are not recommended, as they tend to contain higher levels of sulfites than red wine.


What about that headache some people complain about after drinking red wine? It could actually be a sensitivity to the naturally-occurring histamines in the wine, said Ryan Gunhus, a wine distributor salesman in Rochester. "If I have more than a glass of red wine I get sneeze attacks," he said.

To help combat histamine reactions, recommends that a person drink a glass of water after drinking a glass of red wine.

Marissa Block is the Life section editor. Send comments, questions and ideas to her at

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