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The Case of the Infamous Sulfite Allergy

Sulfites really do get a bad rap. In a recent conversation with my mom – she was calling for a wine recommendation – when she uttered these next few words that would change our 15 minute conversation into an hour long discussion.

“Oh, and I need a sulfite free wine for Aunt Tracy because she is allergic to them.”

Since I know a thing or two about wine, I like to take little windows for wine education and throw them wide freaking open. So when my mom dished up this little nugget on a silver platter, I pounced. Which only made me think harder about how little people actually know about sulfites and what they are actually doing in our wine.

So, first things first. Is there such a thing as a sulfite free wine? NO. Before you knock on my door debating me that there is, allow me dear reader, to explain. All wines have sulfites, but wine that is sold in the US has to legally state on the label “contains sulfites”, whereas wine sold in other countries does not. There are still sulfites in these wines just no pesky law requiring us to know that they are in there. Many times people who have travelled to Europe will return to the US on a mission to find that wine they had in Italy that did not contain sulfites and so they could drink bottle after bottle with no headaches. Another good question: Are Sulfites responsible for wine headaches? NO!

(Look for an upcoming post about the Mystery of the Killer Red Wine Headaches, but I digress).

So what are sulfites then? They are a naturally occurring preservative in all wines. They can also be found in other fermented products such as cheese, beer, dried fruit, olives and bacon. Some winemakers will choose to add additional sulfur (SO2) to the bottle before capping in order to protect the wine from decomposition. This can leave the scent of a burnt match or rotten eggs on the nose of the wine if there is an excessive amount added. Usually, decanting the wine or a good swirl of the glass allows the excess SO2 to “blow off” and the wine can be drunk as usual. If a wine is certified organic, no additional sulfites will be added to the wine.

A good test for a sulfite allergy? If a person can eat a handful of dried apricots without having an allergic reaction, then they do not suffer from a sulfite allergy!

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