Wine Sulphite Allergy

Bound Sulphur - headache and hangover (see below)

"I've struggled with the hangover effect after only 1 glass of wine so decided to try a mixed case of low sulphur wine from your website. I really enjoyed all 6 bottles of wine (not at the same time!) and was pleasantly surprised to find that there was no hangover in sight - not even a muzzy head! Turns out I'm not such a lightweight; just sulphur intolerant! 2nd case just ordered...."


Free Sulphur – allergic reaction

We’ve covered the causes of the allergic reaction on the sulphite free wines page – the ‘free’ sulphur causing a reaction in the human body which in turn releases histamines which causes the allergic reaction. It is this FREE sulphur content that is important to sulphite intolerant people. Different people have different tolerance levels and should seek their own medical advice, but we’ve worked out that Jane can safely drink a wine containing up to 30 mg/l at bottling (which will have reduced by about 10ppm within a few weeks) with no ill effects whatsoever.

Total Sulphur

The TOTAL sulphur content of a wine is (not surprisingly) the sum of the inert BOUND sulphur, and the active FREE sulphur. There is far more bound sulphur in a wine than free sulphur, although the amount will vary quite dramatically between different wines, and different styles of wine.

For example a dessert wine contains a lot of sugar, and active free sulphur will combine with this sugar to become bound sulphur. So a winemaker will have to keep adding more free sulphur until the wine’s natural sugars and rogue oxygen have been ‘used up’. It needs to reach saturation point, then the additional free sulphur will remain free and be able to protect the wine. Therefore the TOTAL sulphur content of the end wine will be very high, although the FREE sulphur level should be about the same as it would be in any other wine.

Red wines on the other hand contain natural anti-oxidants in the form of tannins from the grape skin which help protect them. Therefore they need less free sulphur to combat any rogue oxygen. White wines and rose wines don’t have this tannin so they need a higher level of free sulphur to protect them – hence the difficulty in finding a good quality low sulphite rose wine!

Under EU law the following levels of TOTAL sulphur are permitted in the following wines:

Red wines 160 mg/l

White wines 210 mg/l

Rose wines 210 mg/l

Sweet wines 400 mg/l

These are measured in Milligrams per Litre (mg/l) or as Parts per Million which are effectively exactly the same. Just to clarify the situation, the same EU law permits a remarkable 2000 ppm of sulphites in dried fruits.

Bound Sulphur - hangover

According to leading winemakers and health professionals the bound sulphur, although not responsible for allergic reactions, does cause other problems – most notably headaches and the dreaded hangover. Have you ever drunk just one bottle of wine and woke up the next day with a banging hangover? Felt sick and tired all day? Blamed it on over indulgence? Well it’s not the alcohol, and it’s not that you drank too much – you just drank the wrong wine, packed full of bound sulphur! So theoretically, to avoid a nasty hangover, it's best to drink (in moderation of course) a good quality red wine with low total sulphur. We drink plenty of wine and I haven't had a hangover in over ten years as we only drink good quality wines made properly without these nasty additives. We are living proof that the hangover is not caused by the alcohol.

Although these are the permitted levels above, one cabernet shiraz tested recently in Australia was found to contain over 17 times the legal limit of sulphites! That’s over 2700 ppm! Now that would give you a headache! Do we believe that all these other mass produced brands available on the UK high street are keeping within the rules? Not wishing to be sceptical about big business in the wine industry, the UK supermarkets anually sell 5 times more 'Pinot Grigio delle Venezie' than the region can physically produce! We have numerous government departments who's purpose is to protect us from this sort of thing. I hope it's not the same quango responsible for checking the sulphur levels too.

To sum up

If you are intolerant to sulphites, avoid any mass produced wines – avoid all BRANDS! Look for either no added sulphur, or low sulphur wines with Free Sulphur at Bottling around 30 mg/l or less. There’s no fixed quantity which is safe or unsafe, different people will have different levels of tolerance, but as a general guide 30 mg/l is low. Many good quality white wines will contain around 60 mg/l free sulphur at bottling, but even this is likely to be too high for someone with a sulphite intolerance. Major brands are likely to contain considerably more free sulphur and should be vehemently avoided! It’s also a good idea to aerate the wine before drinking it by using a decanter as this will convert some of the remaining free sulphur very quickly into inert bound sulphur as it reacts with oxygen in the air, making it safer to drink.

If you suffer from bad hangovers or headaches after drinking wines it could well be that you’re drinking the wrong ones, high in bound sulphur (and other chemical additives). Try switching to a low sulphur wine and you will see your symptoms improve or more likely disappear altogether.

Please also note that sulphites are widely used in a variety of other foods and drinks, particularly, fruit juices, dried fruits, processed foods, alcopops and lagers. If these affect you, try drinking German Pils brewed to the purity laws – there is no added sulphur. Or there are plenty of artisan micro breweries in the UK now, many of whom don't add sulphites.