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Dublin, Ireland
Hi, I'm Dermot Nolan, and I became a Master of Wine (MW) in 1997, and resigned from the Institute of Masters of Wine in 2023 after being an MW for exactly 26 years. I opened a wine shop in Dún Laoghaire, Ireland, called The Wine Library, which closed in 2018, and this is my personal wine blog. I will do my utmost to be fair and responsible in my posts – please read my Who Pays article in re the ethics of wine trips and writing. I have worked in wine education, retail, and consultancy since 1990. I was a Director of the Institute of Masters of Wine (IMW) from 2008 to 2014 and was also a member of the Events Committee, founder of the Trips Committee, and member of the Governance Committee. Having had problems with potentially libellous comments from unidentifiable posters, I now require that if you post a comment, you must identify yourself properly or it won't be published. Please note that I do not review products or services on request so kindly don't ask. I value my independence and I believe my readers (few that they may be) do so also.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

It’s such a headache…

It is not uncommon for people to walk into a shop and ask for a zero-sulfur wine, frequently claiming that sulfur in wines gives them a headache. Now, no wines are sulfur free as sulfur (or sulfur-based compounds) are formed during fermentation; when this is explained, then they ask for a “low-sulfur” wine. At this point, if you want to annoy the questioner, simply ask them for a number: what is a low-sulfur level? They will never be able to answer you because they have no idea what they are talking about. Fun, huh?

 “But I get headaches from the sulfur in wine” – how many times have you heard that? Wine-related headaches occur in two ways: the well-known Red Wine Headache (RWH) is one and the other is excessive consumption resulting in a hangover. The former is solved by taking aspirin before drinking (Herbert S. Kaufman MD (1992) The red wine headache andprostaglandin synthetase inhibitors: a blind controlled study, Journal of WineResearch, 3:1, 43-46, DOI: 10.1080/09571269208717913), the latter by reducing the amount of wine you drink or vastly increasing the amount of water you drink. Ever noticed that at dinner parties, typically the amount of wine consumed is one bottle per head plus one for the table? Ever noticed that water is frequently absent from the table? Ever noticed that water glasses are typically way smaller than the wine glasses?

When the body processes alcohol it requires water and this leads to dehydration which leads to a hangover, which is one big headache. Bear in mind that alcohol is a toxin – it is so toxic that by law the alcoholic strength MUST be clearly labelled on the bottle.

Now, back to sulfur. All wines contain sulfur in a form known universally as sulfites. How much? Aha, there’s the rub. You, dear reader, don’t know – very few people have any idea of what levels of sulfites are in wine. So, let’s ask some simple questions.

The last time sulfites in wine gave you a headache did you:

1.       Eat any dried tomatoes?

2.       Eat any mustard?

3.       Drink any lime or lemon juice?

4.       Eat any breakfast sausages or pre-made beef burgers?

5.       Eat any Dijon mustard?

6.       Eat any dried apples or dried pears?

7.       Eat any dried bananas?

8.       Eat any dried apricots or dried peaches?

9.       Do you like New Zealand sauvignon blanc?

If you answered Yes to ANY of these questions then you’ll have problems claiming the sulfites in wine caused you any problems. Why? Because all of these products have maximum allowed sulfite levels equal to or far in excess of the maximum levels allowed in wine. In the extreme case the allowed maximum is 10 times greater than in wine. In fact, given the normal levels in wine and assuming that the dried apricots you ate contain the maximum allowed level of sulfites then that disparity could be 20 times greater!

As for New Zealand sauvignon blanc, given that its extremely distinctive aromatic profile is heavily dependent on thiols, sulfur containing compounds, then you can’t have a problem with sulfites in wine.

Bear in mind that alcohol is measured in parts per hundred (%) whereas sulfur is measured in parts per million (ppm) – yes, per MILLION. Most wine contain about 50% of the maximum allowed level of sulfur and are typically about 80 ppm.

Breakfast sausages, pre-prepared burgers, Dijon mustard and all dried fruits have maxima greater than the allowed maximum for any wine style and I’m willing to bet you never got a headache from eating any of these so why do you think wine gave you a headache? Is it, perhaps not the maximum sulfur but rather the maximum consumption?

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