What is the real story with sulfites?

It makes me chuckle that some of these fine folks insist that they can drink red wine in Italy, for example, with no health issues because it's only American wines that have "those damn sulfites."  I've even had a few tell me that Italy has to make "Sulfite" wine for the U.S. due to regulations.  So one wine for Italy and a special version of the same wine with sulfites for the U.S.  Really?

Sulfites (chemically known as sulfur dioxide or SO2) are in ALL wines- they naturally occur as a by-product of fermentation in every wine.  Most wineries, including those in Italy and around the world, also add a miniscule amount of sulfites as a preservative to their wines.  Certainly counterintuitively to my aforementioned misinformed friends, more sulfites are added to white wines, especially sweeter dessert wines, while dry red wines have the lowest sulfite content.  Sulfites have been used in wine production for centuries, including for cleaning tanks rather than harsher products or toxic chemicals. 

It may come as a surprise that few countries require wine labels that state "Contains Sulfites," and less of a surprise that the U.S. is one of the handful that do.  There is a tiny percentage of the population that is allergic to sulfites, mainly severe asthma sufferers, and there are many foods and beverages that contain more sulfites than wine.  It's a mystery why wines must be labeled with "Contains Sulfites" and these other products with higher sulfites are not required to be labeled similarly.

So rather than a different wine for the U.S. with sulfites, a label that states in the fine print "Contains Sulfites" is required in the U.S.  And if not sulfites, then why do people experience the headaches and/or hangovers with some wines and not others?  Sugars?  Tannins?  Nothing related to the chemical makeup of the wine?  I don't know, but it's not the sulfites.  Please provide your comments and we'll address the topic further in an upcoming blog.

 Fred hanging in Rioja country.

Fred hanging in Rioja country.