“Contains sulfites”—sobering warning found on almost every wine label.

Cause for alarm? Yes, for very severe asthmatics—but many foods cause them problems. One dried apricot has 10 times the sulfites as one glass of wine.

A natural component of fermentation, sulfites have been added to preserve wine and prevent oxidation since Roman times.

It is almost impossible to make good wine without sulfites. There are very low sulfite wines, but usually they are expensive and have other limitations—they spoil quickly and must be consumed within 18 months after making starts, meaning a shelf life of less than a year in stores. Short shelf life terrorizes wine sellers.

Sulfites also get blamed for morning-after headaches and hangovers. Some people have a problem metabolizing wine, but according to allergy doctors, sulfite is not the cause of headaches and hangovers. Prime suspects are over-consumption and histamines, which occur naturally in wine, especially during malolactic (secondary) fermentation.

The 1988 label law requiring “contains sulfites” stems from problems when restaurateurs used sulfites for same reason as winemakers—to prevent fruits and veggies from wilting and turning brown. Restaurant sulfite applications were far in excess of anything ever found in wine. Still, government decreed; label warnings appeared.

Ironically, with modern techniques, most wines today have less sulfites than ever before.

Dry red wines have the least sulfites—tannins do the task of preservation, sulfites not needed. Because they lack tannin, sweet white wines and dessert wines have the most sulfites. Drink accordingly, sulfite-phobes.


• Symington Vale do Bomfim Douro Valley. Elegant spice and berries from upper Douro valley of Portugal. $14

• The Wishing Tree Shiraz. Bright, lively, cherries, black fruit and earth from Western Australia. $14

• Viña Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon Maipo Valley Medalla Real Special Reserve. Ripe, concentrated Chilean red. Integrated tannins, wonderful. $17