A shopper with a mission wandered in the store the other day looking specifically for an organic wine. Organic and biodynamic (think chemical-free plus a homeopathic cycle in the vineyard, all the while nurturing the natural ecosystem) wines are becoming more and more common. That however, is a whole other topic that maybe I’ll write about another time. In showing this guy to a few organics, I came to find out that he is allergic to sulfites. They give him headaches, so he thinks that organic wine is the way to go. I disagree. This is a topic that has created much confusion for wine consumers, so let me break it down and explain.

The term “sulfite” on a wine bottle is all-encompassing for sulfur dioxide, sulfurous acid, forms of complexed sulfite and a number of different things regarding sulfur. The term “sulfide” with a “d” refers to the natural byproduct of fermentation; these are two different things but both have to do with sulfur and are part of the mix-up of what causes headaches. Sulfur is used in some form in the vineyard to protect against different types of mildew that are common on grape vines. Sulfur is actually a vital part of the life of a vine. Some soil types provide a bit of the sulfur necessary for success, but farmers often add more. It is then used in the winemaking process as a cleansing agent and most importantly, as a preservative. Wine is a fragile product. For it to be made and then shipped across the state or around the world, it needs some protection. In red wine, the tannins supply a great deal of preservation. White wines do not have tannin so they are actually quite a bit higher in sulfur content. While organic and biodynamic wines will probably have less sulfur, there will still be some because of the kind that is naturally created through the process of fermentation.

So what’s with the allergy? There are some people that yes, truly are allergic to sulfur or some compound (like sulfides) that contain sulfur, but they are few and far between. A good way to find out if you are or not is to eat dried fruit. Dried apricots, craisins, any of those preserved fruits have loads of sulfur in them. So if you have issues with wine and not those food products – than it’s something else that’s bugging you. Very likely, it is the % of alcohol in the wine. It sounds like that is the case for my inquisitive shopper. If you don’t take note already, pay attention to the percentage of alcohol in each bottle you open. New world (meaning the Americas, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa) tend to be pretty high in alcohol. Reds generally have more than whites. Old world (France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria and more) tend to be a bit lower. The reason why is something I should write about another day. Regardless of what you’re drinking, check out the percentage of alcohol in that wine and pay attention to how you feel later or in the morning. A wine that is at 11% versus 16% makes a HUGE difference.

So there you have it, that’s the story on sulfur in wine. It is something that anyone in the wine industry really needs to be familiar with. It comes up so frequently with consumers in restaurants or in store. This was just a brief summary, read up in Jancis Robinson’s Oxford for the information, then figure out how to best present it to the consumer. It isn’t easy to say, “well actually, you’re probably wrong” if they are convinced that they have an allergy, but you can present this information and still sell wine without bruising anyone’s ego. My highly-susceptible-to-headaches shopper has come back a couple of times now to buy wines that are low in booze and he is pretty excited that he can drink wine without worry.