What Are Sulfites?
From thekitchn.com, “The term sulfites is an inclusive term for sulfur dioxide (SO2), a preservative that’s widely used in winemaking (and most food industries) for its antioxidant and antibacterial properties. SO2 plays an important role in preventing oxidization and maintaining a wine’s freshness.”
Sulfites are used sparingly in wine, typically to make sure that the wine bottle is clean and does not contain any bacteria that will spoil your bottle. Sulfites in such small amounts would not affect most people, but you may have a sensitivity to sulfites caused by severe asthma or lacking an enzyme needed to break down sulfites. I have read that ~1% of Americans are sensitive to sulfites and I guess that the same percentage holds true in Canada. In Canada as of 2016, our population was 36.29 million people; 1% of that population, 362,900 people would, therefore, be sensitive to sulfites.
Getting a Headache or Other Symptoms?
Some people indicate that they get a headache, or a cough, from drinking red wine, and blame it on sulfites. If you have been tested and are sensitive to sulfites, then you should consider that red wines contain the least amount of sulfites in general as they have protection from spoilage by tannins. White wines, lacking tannins, require some sulfites to protect them, and I have been told that sweet, white dessert wines have the least protection from spoilage so require the most amount of sulfites for longevity.
Did you know that dried fruits can have up to 1000ppm of sulfites to preserve them? For the LCBO, “For dry and medium sweet wines the LCBO’s maximum allowable limit 50 mg/L. This increases to 70 mg/L for sweet wines containing more than 35 grams per litre (g/L) residual sugar“. 1 mg/L = 1 ppm
If it isn’t sulfites causing the headache or cough when you drink red wine, then what could it be?
“...A lot of research suggests that the headache culprits might be histamine and tyramine, other chemical substances that are naturally present in wine. Histamine dilates blood vessels and tyramine first constricts then dilates blood vessels…red wines, in general, contain more histamine than Champagnes or sparkling wines and those usually contain more histamine than [still] white wines.” http://guides.wsj.com
There can still be some people who are affected by sulfites (the 1% of our population), causing an allergic reaction or possibly a headache. And possibly the sulfites interact with histamine and tyramine in ways that have not yet been tested.
A Way To Minimize Sulfites and Other Compounds in Your Wine
I was provided with an Üllo Wine Purifier to test and write about my experiences using it to filter wine. The Üllo Wine Purifier is a device that combines two things; an aerator to help a wine breathe and open, and a filter that traps sulfites, and possibly other compounds in wines. The Üllo filter does not eliminate 100% of sulfites. They note that the filter reduces sulfites to their natural level. Although I did not have sulfite detection strips or other tools to test for sulfites, I do have friends that get headaches, or hives, or a cough after drinking red wine.
The purifier comes in two parts; a black silicone cone to guide your wine to the aerator/filter, and the aerator. If you want to aerate the wine only, push the two parts together, put the Üllo on top of your glass and slowly pour your wine. If you want to also use the filter, you have an additional step. The selective sulfite filter comes in a sealed package which you open. It looks like a round teabag, but of course has the selective sulfite materials inside. You remove the red top of the aerator, place the filter on top of the clear bottom portion of the aerator, replace the red top and then place black silicone cone over the aerator + filter. After pouring a glass, there is a black stand that comes with the Üllo where you can put the purifier, before pouring your next glass.
The Üllo Wine Purifier comes with four filters; each filter being sufficient to filter one 750 ml bottle of wine. Once you use up the filters that come with the Üllo Wine Purifier, you need to purchase more filters.
Red Wine Test
I brought a bottle of CC Jentsch Cellars Small Lot Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 from the Okanagan to try with one of my friends who is sensitive to something in red wine. He gets a dry cough the morning after drinking red wine the evening before. We first tried a small glass with the Üllo, but only used the aerator. I took notes on the wine’s aromas and flavours. We then poured a second and third glass, this time inserting the filter in the Üllo, and again taking notes. There was a very noticeable difference between the two glasses of wine.
CC Jentsch Cellars Small Lot Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 [aerator only] – The wine is an opaque garnet in colour. Medium plus intensity of aromas covering sweet, black fruit, smoke, black cherries, and sweet oak. It is dry with medium intensity acidity and medium plus tannins. Fuller bodied with flavours of black fruit and black cherries, bitter dark chocolate, oak, and a hint of floral. Medium plus length finishing with black fruit, bitterness and firm tannins. A deep, big Cab.
CC Jentsch Cellars Small Lot Series Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 [with sulfite filter and aerator] – Opaque garnet in colour. Medium intensity nose, with woody, dark fruit and cassis nose. The wine is dry with medium plus acidity and body, flavour intensity, and medium tannins. The wine has a smooth mouthfeel, lesser bitterness on the palate. Flavours of black fruit, black cherries, and cassis. Medium length finishing with black cherries, some bitterness and firm tannins. –
There was a significant difference between the two wines, particularly with a lessening of the tannins. This allowed more fruit flavours to come out, in particular, cassis, which I did not note with the aerator only. The other difference was that the aromas were not as pronounced as the aerator only tested glass. That being said, the filtered wine with the reduced tannins and more forward fruit flavours was quite enjoyable. The filter did not affect the colour of the wine.
White Wine Test
As I mentioned earlier, white wines do not have the protection of spoilage that red wines do, as they do not have tannins. So, more sulfites may be added to white wines. I purchased a bottle of Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay 2015 from California. I chose this wine because it has oak barrel ageing, which can impart some tannins to the wine, and I noted the reduced tannins from my red wine test. Would the Üllo reduce the oak and tannins in this white wine?
Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay 2015 [aerator only] – Clear, medium plus, bright lemon in colour. It has a medium intensity nose, with developing aroma of butterscotch, along with apple, citrus, and ripe tropical fruit flavours. The aromas were quite deep. On the palate, the wine is dry, medium acidity, full and round, buttery, with a heavy mouthfeel. Flavours of ripe tropical fruit, grilled fruit, woodiness, light vanilla, honey and butterscotch. Medium plus length finishing with toasty oak and some pepperiness.
Beringer Founders’ Estate Chardonnay 2015 [with sulfite filter and aerator] – Clear, medium plus, bright lemon in colour. Medium, intensity nose with developing aromas of butterscotch and rich, ripe tropical fruit. It is dry with medium acidity, and body, and medium plus flavour intensity. Not quite as full-bodied as the aerator only glass. Ripe tropical fruit flavours and butterscotch. There was still a buttery mouthfeel, and the acidity felt more pronounced compared to the aerator only glass. The wine had a medium length.
The main thing that I noticed between the two glasses of wine was that the acidity level appeared higher in the sulfite filtered wine. The flavours and aromas were fairly similar, but maybe not quite as strong. Either glass was pleasant to drink.
Red Wine After Effects?
Did my red wine sensitive friend have a dry cough the morning after our wine tasting? No he did not cough. So something in the wine did get filtered out that causes him to cough. He and I will try tasting a few more red wines using the Üllo Wine Purifier, and I will post our results for you. If you are one of the people who are somehow affected by red wine, you may want to purchase an Üllo Wine Purifier and see if it works for you. Üllo retails for $79.99 with disposable filters sold in 6-packs $19.99, 10-packs, $29.99 and 15-packs for $39.99.