“I only drink natural wines, sulfites give me headaches.”
Phrases like this have been thrown around willy-nilly for years, often with little understanding of what is actually happening in the vinification process, and little scientific evidence to back them up.
Nowadays, it’s a common practice among so-called “natural” producers to not add sulfur dioxide (SO2) during winemaking. And many have been eager to tout the health benefits of not doing so, saying that drinking natural wine reduces the chance of headaches and hangovers. But new research suggests that not only is this not the case, but the opposite may also be true.
Sulfites are a chemical compound present and naturally occurring on the skins of grapes. Additionally, sulfites can be added at multiple stages before, during, and after fermentation to aid in preservation. While there is a level of risk for those who have acute sulfite-sensitive asthma (less than 1 percent of the population), none of their symptoms correlate with having a headache. And if sulfites were the problem, more people would be averse to drinking white wine, which has more sulfites than red, but more people tend to blame last night’s glass of red.
A much more likely culprit for headaches is a group of compounds called biogenic amines (BA), the most common and toxic of which are histamines. Not only is a larger percentage of the population sensitive to BA, the compounds are also naturally present in many wines.
So how does this relate to natural wine specifically?
A recently released research paper from Master of Wine Sophie Parker-Thomson, which was later shared by SevenFifty Daily, showed that BA levels are higher in wines that have had no SO2 added before fermentation. Additionally, Parker-Thomson’s research proved that in wines with more than 30 milligrams per liter of SO2 added, the BA levels in the wine were inconsequential. In other words, the use of sulfites drastically decreases any ill effects a drinker might feel because of the presence of BA.
While natural wine isn’t defined by the use of sulfur dioxide, perhaps health-focused consumers might reevaluate any stance against SO2, and consider the effect histamines may have on their bodies.