There’s been a fair bit of controversy about sulfites in wine and their relationship to the phenomenon of red wine headaches (RWH). First it should be clarified what constitutes a RWH. That feeling you get the next morning after finishing a bottle of Shiraz does not count. The problem for people who suffer from this, starts within minutes of their first sip and can lead to symptoms from mild headaches to migraines. Sulfites, which are present in every bottle of wine, have been associated with the headaches, primarily because in the U.S. they have required that the statement “may contain sulfites” be printed on each bottle label. While it’s not impossible to be allergic to sulfites, it’s extremely rare, and there are considerably more sulfites in white wine, dried fruits such as raisins and sandwich meats, which do not create the same problems for RWH sufferers.

Unfortunately there has been no definitive cause determined yet, as the funding for research into RWH hasn’t been significant (I’m guessing there are more pressing issues on researcher’s minds). A number of theories and some testing have lead to the more likely component in wine that causes the phenomenon: HISTAMINES. We’ve all heard of anti-histamines used to combat a histamine reaction in the body from things like bee stings. Histamines are produced in wines that have undergone a secondary fermentation called malo-lactic fermentation (MLF). During this process harsh malic acid is converted to softer lactic acid, making the wine “easier” to drink. MLF also produces histamines and the popular theory now is that it is a reaction to this that causes RWH.

There is no way of determining which wines have undergone MLF, unless you make the wine yourself. MLF is a long drawn out secondary fermentation that is not available to the home or ferment on premises wine maker. As well, you get far less sulfite when you make it yourself because commercial wineries have no idea when their product will be consumed and must therefore add enough sulfite preservative to every bottle, to last as long as the oldest one being stored. When buying commercial wine, in general you’re safer buying Old World wines as MLF is not nearly as popular there as it is in the New World and particularly California.

Blog provided by: Ray Vezeau, owner of Chateau Vezeau Wines, a ferment on premises winemaking facility in Brooklin.