Frequently, customers ask me to recommend a wine that will not give them a headache. The first question I like to ask to get to the bottom of the headache dilemma is, “How much wine are you planning to drink tonight?” with the rhetorical implication that if it’s more than a few glasses, a headache is to be expected. Alcohol in high doses causes headaches. If, however, the customer’s answer is something like: “Even a glass of red wine will give me a headache; I think it might be the sulfites. Can you point me to the low-sulfite wines?” then we can have a real discussion about sulfites and what goes into a bottle of wine.
Who is allergic to sulfites? Approximately 1 out of every 100 people is allergic to sulfites. The levels of sulfites allowed in wine in the United States are much less than the levels allowed in dried fruit. If you don’t get headaches from dried apricots, then it’s not the sulfites in wine giving you headaches. Also, white wines contain more sulfites than red wines, so if you’re experiencing headaches from red wine and not white, it’s not the sulfites.
Sulfites occur naturally during the winemaking process. Sometimes they are also added to wine at various stages prior to bottling. All wine containing at least 10 parts per million of sulfites must be labeled, “Contains sulfites.” This is a US labeling standard that applies to imported wines as well as domestic, so if you had a wine in France that wasn’t labeled as containing sulfites, it almost certainly contained them anyway. The US requirement for this warning was implemented in the ’70s after a number of people with sulfite allergies unknowingly consumed large amounts of sulfites that had been sprayed in copious amounts on fruits and vegetables in supermarkets and salad bars. Since then, the vague statement “contains sulfites” may have prevented consumers with sulfite allergies from harm, but it has also confused and alarmed others.
What is not required on a wine label is a list of other ingredients. This might sound silly. What other ingredients? Cabernet Sauvignon is an ingredient, but grape varieties are not required to be included on American labels. Commercial yeast might be an ingredient, but it’s not required to be listed either. And if you’re using commercial yeast, you’re probably also adding sulfites, nutrients, and enzymes to your wine. You might even be adding a host of unnecessary products to your wine in order to attain certain desired characteristics artificially. Here is an excellent article on the subject.
Why is it that every wine in our store has to be labeled “contains sulfites” while the myriad of other additives are allowed to go unlabeled? Are you allergic to Mega Purple? Ever heard of it? It might be in the wine you’re drinking.
When that customer asks me to direct him or her to the wines that contain fewer sulfites, I invariably lead them into the Cool Room, where we keep our natural wines. These are wines that from the vine to the bottle contain a few basic ingredients: grapes, ambient yeast which converts sugar to alcohol, and yes, sulfites, which are a natural byproduct of that process, and act naturally as a preservative for the wine, which therefore has to be stored in our Cool Room, because the wine is naturally temperature-sensitive.
Natural wines aren’t for everyone. Many people prefer the consistency of commercial wines and don’t want to worry about bottle variation, cloudiness, sediment, or temperature-controlled storage. To avoid headaches, it might be enough to look for wines that are made from organically farmed grapes. Also, if a winemaker goes to the trouble of organically farming or, better yet, Biodynamic farming, chances are he or she isn’t sabotaging the process by chemically engineering the wine.
For me, natural, Biodynamic, and organic wines taste better and won’t give me a headache, unless I drink too much. Until wineries become more transparent about what they’re adding and not adding to their wines, either voluntarily or through new regulations, we have to do the best we can to be informed consumers and purveyors – even if it is a big headache!
Here are a handful of my favorite wines that are low in sulfites and organic, Biodynamic, and/or natural:
“Champ d’Etoiles” Cremant du Jura, Champ Divin – Biodynamic
A genuine “field of stars,” this pale copper sparkler is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that scintillates with extra fine bubbles. Dry, with notes of pear cider, seaside beaches and pale sand, the texture is light, clean with just enough body Though zéro dosage, this is not an austere wine and can appeal to even those unfamiliar with the unique character of the Jura. Classic methode champenoise, means structured complexity and a fine pairing with baked seafood canapés.
Saveurs Assemblage, Binner – Biodynamic
A delicate dry Alsatian blend in which Gewürztraminer is highlighted but does not dominate. Rose hips, lychees, lemon, and pear drops move across a sheer palate with a jubilant limey acidity. Elegant and worth pages of praise, with a slight effervescence that is natural, this wine works well with Asian pork and poultry, especially in savory, slightly spicy sauces. It will also be wonderful with outdoor grilled fish, pâté, and charcuterie.
Cheverny Rouge, Dom. du Moulin – Natural
Hervé Villemade’s vineyards are located on the border of the Sologne woods in the western Loire valley. He is a master of Cheverny; his wines easily express the dense soils of his region. This clear blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir gives strong, raspberry and kirsch notes all struck with a distinct earthy note and lots of foresty undergrowth. The wine evolves in glass, opening easily and this Natural wine is just a joy to drink. Serve with herbed goat cheese, grilled poultry or enjoy on its own! Villemade ferments and matures his wines in large wooden vats. It was bottled with minimal SO2.
Touraine Cabernet “La Gautrie”, Venier – Natural
A delicate but extraordinarily fruit-driven Cabernet Franc from Christian Venier. Light-bodied and terroir-driven, “La Gautrie” is redolent of moss, bedrock, thyme and wild strawberries. Serve with a light chill for best results.
Donkey and Goat Grenache Noir – Natural
Foot stomping good, this fleshy red is Donkey and Goat’s first stand alone bottling of Grenache Noir and most certainly not their last. Solid dark fruits, fairly plump and chewy tannins and giving acidity which make this a fine match with any roasted meats.