Last week I was at a dinner sitting next to a nutritionist, when I offered to pour her a glass of red wine she said, “Oh no I don’t drink red wine it give me a headache.” Why is that I asked? “I think it’s because of the Sulphites.”
So I thought I’d use our blog to explain why winemakers use sulphites and why it is unlikely to be the cause of your headache after drinking that bottle of cheap Chilean red last night.
Coincidentally, as I was clearing out my office (she who must be obeyed’s new edict) I came across a scribbled note about sulphites in my Plumpton College notes and how it’s often histamines, rather than sulphites, that cause headaches.
So what is a sulphite and why is it in wine? Sulphur dioxide (SO2) is used as an anti-oxidant in wine. If you cut an apple and leave it for any length of time the exposed flesh will turn brown, this is oxidation. When grapes are first pressed the exposed juice (or must) can quickly turn brown in colour unless you protect it from the oxygen in the air. Winemakers protect the juice in several ways; in most wineries you rapidly chill the grape juice (or must) after pressing and in most wineries you add SO2 in the form of Potassium metabisulphite or PMBS. I can still hear Tony Milanowski, our lecturer at Plumpton College, shouting, “It’s not Sulphur”. It’s called a sulphite because it’s a compound of sulphur. Just for the record SO2 is also an anti-microbial and can prevent or stop fermentation.
So SO2 is used at various stages in the wine making process, including in many organic wines to stop wine from spoiling, however, its use is restricted and all wines sold in the UK have SO2 levels tested prior to sale. Legal limits for wines vary – in white and rosé wine it is 180mg/l and in red it’s 150mg/l. The World Health Organisation guideline is that we consume no more that 700mg/kg of body weight, so you’d have to drink a lot of wine to get above that level! However, it’s also used as a preservative in many other products from meat to vegetables and soft drinks so cumulatively it can all add up.
Generally wines contain between 50-100mg/l of SO2, it helps preserve the quality of wine, and will have very little effect on your health and probably won’t be responsible for your headache, so don’t worry about it unless you are especially sensitive or have a specific allergy to sulphites.
However, many foods and drinks that are fermented or aged, like old cheese and wine will contain histamines. Spinach and tomatoes also contain histamines, as does beer. Generally red wine will have more histamine levels but these vary from as low as 3 micrograms per litre in some white wines, to 3800 micrograms /l in some red wines.
High concentrations of histamines in wine, above 2000micrograms/l are seen as dangerous to health and can cause headaches, migranes and other allergic reactions, but winemakers don’t need to declare on the side of the bottle that a wine ‘Contains Histamines’.
So how’s it caused? (Now you can skip over this bit if you wish and jump to the next paragraph on ‘how to avoid a headache’). It’s created by the presence of histidine decarboxylase in some lactic acid bacteria (LAB) and can be created by various strains of LAB, which may occur naturally in the wine or be used to induce what’s called malolatic fermentation. However, certain strains of LAB produce significantly less histamine that others. So it can be controlled, to a certain extent, by the winemaker.
So how do I avoid the hangover? Well unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s a question of trial and error. Buy better quality wine because generally it’s better made – my experience is that cheap red wines give you a bigger headache. As red wine has higher concentrations of histamines try and stick to a producer you have tried before and had no problems with or drink white and sparkling wine as they have lower histamine levels. And drink water.
So the message is drink less, but better quality, well made wine and drink water as well.
My old English teacher Jack Tarr, as well as reciting poetry whilst doing a headstand on his desk, would always tell us to have a pint of water before going to bed. At my age that causes problems. So drink a Sussex Sparkling because it’s less likely to cause a headache!