Sulfites and Wine: The Headache Connection

woman drinking red wineI love wine. Unfortunately, wine no longer loves me—the long headache isn’t worth the short buzz. But according to wine expert Olivier Magny, it’s not the wine itself that’s the problem, it’s the type of wine I’m drinking. Cheap wine. American wine. Sulfites in wine.

Olivier, who has taught the art of sommelier-ing to more than 100,000 students at his Paris-based O Chateau, has a problem with sulfites and wine. “Wine should never give you a headache,” he told me. “Good wine—which in my book doesn’t mean expensive but does mean well made—is guaranteed headache-free.”

Anyone who says I can drink as much wine as I want without a headache has me riveted—at least until the third glass.

And when Olivier talks about his book, he’s being literal: The man has published three, but it’s his latest, Into Wine: An Invitation to Pleasure, that captured my attention.

Anyone who says I can drink as much wine as I want without a headache has me riveted—at least until the third glass.

So I asked him about sulfites and wine. And here’s what he had to say:

Where do sulfites come from? Sulfites in wine may be of volcanic origin, but when used in cheap, mass-produced wine, they’re usually derived from petroleum and added in high quantities.

So sulfites cause headaches, right? Not exactly. High amounts of petroleum-based sulfites cause headaches; naturally derived sulfites, not so much–unless you’re drinking to excess. (As if!)

What is the purpose of sulfites in wine? Sulfites are antiseptic and antioxidant; they’re used to fight bacteria.

Are sulfites in wine bad? No. Without sulfites, wine has a hard time not reacting to heat, light, oxygen and transportation.

So how do we know if there are high levels of sulfites in wine? The wine has the faint smell of a snapped match and when you taste it, the tip of your tongue might be slightly anesthetized. And headaches are a dead giveaway.

So what can I drink? Some wines sport “no sulfite” labels. Many biodynamic and organic wines like Pacific Rim Wallula Vineyard Biodynamic Riesling 2010, 2011 Jeriko Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 750 mLand 2010 Beaver Creek Fairytale Cabernet Sauvignon Lake County 750 mL are all low to no sulfites. And these were hand-picked by Olivier himself.

Cheers!

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Comments

  1. Corrinna says:

    I eat broccoli and eggs …never a headache ever, so why do I get one with wine containing sulfites?

  2. The headaches are caused by the added sulphites which are a man made chemical compound. Cheap wine has huge amounts added regardless of which country it comes from. Plus a further 80+ additives are permitted! But some more expensive wines also have too much added and there is no way of knowing how much sulphite is in a wine from the label. USA certified organic wines are not permitted to add sulphites so these wines will not give you a headache. Unfortunately the same strict controls don’t apply to EU certified organic and this is a game of Russian roulette. Some will be low sulphite, some won’t. The best way to source healthy wines is to find a good wine merchant like goodwineonline.co.uk who find all this info out for you and only sell low sulphite wines.

  3. sunnygirl says:

    Some sulfites are necessary, however, the USA has “high standards”(overkill for CYA purposes is more like it), so there are a lot more sulfites and other preservatives as well. Any wine that comes from Italy or France needs to have all this stuff added to it. I know this for a fact because I have a cousin in Italy who imports wine. The wine we get is not exactly the same as the wine they get. My husband makes his own wine and he doesn’t use any preservatives of any kind.. i might still get a headache if I start drinking on an empty stomach, or drink too much, but never a killer headache from just one glass like some wines I buy.

  4. Ana Lemus says:

    I had stopped drinking all together because the headaches were awful, 3 sips of wine would last 5 hrs in my head pain wise…. My family drinks wine, they love different types of wine and all sorts, wines form different regions, Chile, Italy, French wine, Argentinian, Spanish wine (which I find super strong) some really expensive, some not so much, so I would not go as far as saying that just because it’s cheap is bad or because it is expensive is good, in my opinion. I have gotten headaches with really good wines or at least great under people with sophisticated taste. I am pretty simple, I really would embarrass my parents in a wine tasting event, cause I am clue less, I know what I like and I am good with it, I am pretty simple and really not knowledgeable when it comes to wine. Anyways, my friend came in one day with a bottle of wine and 2 glasses, Immediately, I said “you can drink and I will sit by you and talk, but I want no headache, I am not drinking”… She asked me to try it, she said it was worth it, she wanted to see how I felt after, she said, her headaches were over and how her husband felt great after a glass or two. So I did. WOW, this wine is organic, its a Cabernet and I had 2 glasses with no headache at all. AT ALL…. I don’t over do it, I don’t drink 4 glasses, I drink half a glass, maybe 1 or 2 at the most in a weekend with friends. Price wise is 19.00, not expensive really at all ( I live in Canada). Just my 2 cents. The name is Bonaterra. They have it in white too. I have not tried it.

    • Rachel Sarnoff says:

      I love Bonterra! Especially the cab. No headaches for me, either 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

      • Interestingly Enough, just went into trader joes and the girl stocking the wine recommended an organic wine called Bonterra! She said they had a wine tasting at the store and she did not get a headache. I stopped drinking wine because of the killer headaches from a very small amount. I can’t wait to try out this wine

        • Rachel Sarnoff says:

          I love Bonterra! It’s absolutely delicious. Let me know what you think of it!

        • Corrinna says:

          I first drank Bonterra over 20 yrs ago, I suffer huge headaches from drinking certain wine but this wine was perfect, no headache at all, also I lived in France and Italy and was able to drink all of their wines without any headaches at all, so I never had to worry about buying organic or sulphite free.

  5. Only 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites. If you eat eggs, broccoli, pickles… you are NOT allergic. If you are asthmatic, you have a higher chance of being in the 1%. Standards are different in the USA than Canada and most of the world. Its been proven that pesticides cause headache and those symptoms. So choosing organic wine is a GREAT idea for the environment and for us. I am passionate about organic wine because I just started drinking it again. I struggle with chronic pain and thought it WAS sulfties. . I would love to talk to anyone because I finally feel I can enjoy wine with my friends and I’m not missing out.

    I saw this post on what foods contain sulfites if it helps. I buy my wine here: http://theorganicwine.wordpress.com/2013/12/20/sulfites-might-not-be-the-problem/

  6. So THAT’s why I sometimes get a killer headache when I drink wine. I wish the labeling of sulfites was more consistent.

    • Rachel Sarnoff says:

      Me too! Olivier told me to look for smaller, artisenal (sp?) wineries, but that’s not really on the label either, is it? 🙂

  7. Kathleen Conner says:

    For me, it’s not just the sulfites, but also the tannins. If I stick with good-quality whites, I’m ok.

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