Many people blame the sulfites in red wine for giving them what is commonly referred to as a “red wine headache”. In reality, sulfites, which are naturally occurring in grapes, onions, garlic and many other plants, are generally above suspicion and have been used in winemaking since Roman times. Sulpher dioxide acts as a preservative as well as an antioxidant. Sulfites can be added to wine at different times during the grape growing and winemaking processes. At the outset, sulfur may be sprayed directly on the vines to deter insects and disease. Sulfur can then be added during winemaking to impede the growth of mold and bacteria naturally found on grapes. Some wines that are produced without the use of sulfites during the winemaking phase can have unusual odors and flavors. Before bottling, sulfites, in the form of gas or tables, are often added to prevent spoilage or oxidation in the finished wine.
A common misperception is that U.S. wines — and wines imported to the U.S. — have more sulfites, or “chemicals” than wines from France or Italy. This is not the case. The words "Contains Sulfites" are mandatory on labels of wine sold in the United States that have more than 10ppm (points per million) of sulfites. These labeling regulations do not apply to wines sold in France, Italy, or most other countries. If a U.S. wine label reads “No Added Sulfites” it simply means that the amount is less than 10ppm but since sulfites naturally occur in grapes there really is no such thing as a sulfite free wine.
We are not saying you cannot get a headache from drinking red wine. In fact, drink a whole lot of it and you are practically guaranteed a good old fashioned “red wine headache”, sometimes referred to as a hangover. If you continue to blame sulfites (and it is true that about 1% of the population is sensitive to sulfites) don’t let red wine take all the heat. Sulfite levels are actually much higher in white wines because they need more antioxidant help (provided by the tannins from the grape skins in red wines) to keep them fresh in the bottle. Bottoms up!