Sulfite Allergy = No Wine. Now What?
March 11, 2012 9:25 PM   Subscribe

Dang it, allergic to sulfites. Does this ruin wine for me forever?

I already had noticed that eating dried fruits like apricots (ingredients: fruit, sugar, sulfites) made me fee wheezy and cough-y, same with bottled hard ciders. But now I get a reaction to wine also -- my throat breaks out in huge sore welts that linger for a day or so. Red wine, white wine -- doesn't seem to matter. I had a half a glass tonight because I was at a fancy dinner and I didn't want to feel left out of the convivial spirit, and already an hour later I'm paying for it.

So, no wine anymore, ever? It seems like the kind of allergy medicine I'd typically take to suppress an allergy is ALSO the kind of medication that they warn you not to mix with alcohol. Is there a way to beat this, or do I just find another drink to nurse bitterly while everyone else is smacking their lips over a gorgeous pinot grigio?
posted by hermitosis to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
There's plenty of sulfite-free wine. Just check the label... they advertise the fact.
posted by cmoj at 9:29 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should be able to find sulfite-free wine at a larger liquor/wine store. I've certainly had taste tests.

The down side is, best my uneducated pallet could tell, it wasn't very good.
posted by maryr at 9:30 PM on March 11, 2012

I was in a wine store today and saw a few that had "sulfite-free" printed on the label.
posted by munchingzombie at 9:30 PM on March 11, 2012

You could homebrew (serious answer). The only downside, if you can call it that, is that you can't age your product as long, so you have to drink it faster. Or you search out sulfite-free wine, which you might find at more serious wine stores or, depending on the state you live in, natural food co-ops or other grocery stores that are serious about wine selection. Talk to a manager, etc.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:33 PM on March 11, 2012

Some whites and fewer (last time I looked) reds can be sulfite-free, but it's not always clear. A place with a good sommelier will be able to tell you definitively. Otheriwise, you might find that a good antihistamine will help (obviously, only test this at a time when it doesn't matter).
posted by rtha at 9:34 PM on March 11, 2012

It's not an allergy – it's a sensitivity (don't have the chance to cite right now, look up your own sources). That of course, is of little consequence to your symptoms – but you may not necessarily be able to treat them with allergy medication.

In summary, yes, you should avoid foods containing sulfites. You will be able to find wines that have no sulfites added and as a result may be very low in sulfites, but sulfites are a by-product of fermentation, so there really isn't such a thing as 100% sulfate-free wine.
posted by halogen at 9:35 PM on March 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah that was my worry about the sulfite-free: that it wouldn't be very good, which, at that point, why would I inflict that on someone? Sigh. I guess I will try some.
posted by hermitosis at 9:35 PM on March 11, 2012

There's an old wives' remedy: put a few drops of hydrogen peroxide (say, 3%?) into the bottle and leave it stand for about ten minutes. My old wife swears by it.
posted by alonsoquijano at 9:53 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have the exact same issue. I just stay away from wine totally.

Also - be aware for foods which have wine as an ingredient, or are cooked with wine. The alcohol cooks off, but the sulfites don't. You'll be adversely affected by these as well, unfortunately. I read labels on everything these days.
posted by spinifex23 at 9:55 PM on March 11, 2012

Go to a wine bar or a bar-bar with a decent list at time when it's slow, talk to the bartender, and flight your way through things. Take notes. You may not be able to find things you can drink on every list at every restaurant you go to, but at least you'll know what you can buy to have to home/take to a friend's house.
posted by rtha at 10:03 PM on March 11, 2012

I have a pal who is allergic to sulfites. He avoids all wine, including food cooked with wine. I can't kiss him if I've been drinking wine that night. Also, Sriracha has sulfites in it, as he was sad to discover.

A consummate drinker, he drinks a lot of beer, A LOT of sake, and plenty of hard alcohol. He's had no problem getting his drink on while avoiding sulfites.
posted by mollymayhem at 10:04 PM on March 11, 2012

Hopefully it is just a sensitivity, and not a full-blown allergy, as the latter can be quite dangerous. Have a look at this list of foods ordered by rough sulfite content for some suggestions on what to avoid.

It is true that many wines labeled "sulfite-free" are, apparently, not sulfite-free, and in any case tend not to be very good.

You have a spot of luck, though, that low-sulfite winemaking is undergoing something of a resurgence, and at least in the wine geek community, is downright fashionable at the moment. Definitely try something labeled "sans souffre," which indicates that there was no potassium metabisulfite added during the winemaking, though as you know there is still some naturally occurring sulfite. I think the key is to find wines from quality producers that also happen to use low or no sulfites. For instance, over in Manhattan, Chambers Street carries several that are listed as no added sulfites but I bet they also have a number of producers who are known to use much less than normal, like Lapierre or Catherine and Pierre Breton and more. The broad moniker of "natural wines" can mean anything and nothing, but often it means lower or no added sulphur. The style of these wines may well be more acidic, lean, and earthy than you're used to, but lots of people (including myself) drink them almost in spite of the low sulphur.

The only other piece of advice is that condition is everything with low- and no-sulphite wine. Without the sulfite as a barrier against oxidation and spoilage, they don't travel as well as most wine, so it's especially important to shop at stores that are mindful of temperature control and sell a lot of that type of wine. Stories are legion about no sulphur winemaker Tony Coturri, who is notorious for wines that taste fantastic out of the barrel but are ruined after a short time in bottle.

Frey Vineyards uses no added sulfites, and they have pretty good distribution, if you are looking for a wine you might see on a list at a chain.
posted by wnissen at 10:10 PM on March 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

Two stories...

- A "sensitivity" is something that may come and go (I have this with eggs)

- At least concerning shellfish allergy, it gets worse as it goes.

I have this with oysters, HOWEVER, an allergy to one shellfish does not equal ALL, as some people think. This was explained to me as an allergist, and totally made sense, since I was, and am, a shrimp/crab/clam/lobster fiend.

Interestingly, my reactions to oysters grew steadily worse as I matured. My first oyster (9 years old) made me nauseous, but I didn't realize why. At 19, i spent a date after sharing a dozen oysters throwing up - attributed it to the mix of dark beer and shellfish. At 22 (in 1992), I fell ill within 20 minutes of consuming 5 or so oysters at an Oyster Party, promptly walked out, caught a cab home, and vomited for the rest of the night. By then, I figured out the problem...

In 1996 I was faced with a dilemma. Knowing that oysters were my tasty kryptonite, I was at a restaurant where the special was a Kumamoto Oyster, topped with Ponzu Sauce, dressed seaweed salad, Osetra caviar, and a raw Quail's egg.

Did I eat that? FUCK YEAH.

It was my last oyster. I threw up about 30 minutes later out of self-preservation....

It's OK. I went on to design high-end Oyster Tastings for an outfit in NYC as a consultant about the time I prepared to move overseas. No one ever guessed my naughty secret - my wine/booze pairings with the oysters were impeccable.

I know what oysters taste like, I just can't eat them anymore unless I want to end up in the hospital.


There is sulfite-free wine. Absolutely!

I suggest you avoid ALL regular wine until THAT ONE TASTE you can not pass up. If it is your last, make it count.

If, like me, you just have to refrain from your "sensitivity" for a while (for me it is eggs) you'll find out down the line. No harm, no foul if you take a break from wine with sulfites.


Disclaimer: I do not know if all true allergies work the way my oyster allergy did, just know that what an allergist told me years later totally jibbed with my personal experience. I work in seafood now, so my allergy (and my customer's allergies/sensitivities) are still relevant in my life.
posted by jbenben at 10:21 PM on March 11, 2012

There is sulfite-free wine but, um, yeah. It's not really great. Some of it is okay, especially if you stick with things labeled as "red table wine" rather than expecting a cabernet to taste as full-bodied and awesome as it normally would. Sulfite-free white wine isn't so bad, really.

That said, you might find that your sensitivity to sulfites goes away after you abstain from all sulfites for a while. For me, it took about a year before I could have a glass here and there; now I'm back to drinking sulfite-full wine on a regular basis, so long as I avoid having a ton every single day.

An alternative is that you could switch to distilled spirits and cocktails to go with your meals. Sometimes I will just have a few nice gin martinis with dinner instead of wine; it's nice.
posted by joan_holloway at 10:29 PM on March 11, 2012

"Sulfite free" is not the same as "No sulfites added." Sulfites occur naturally on the outer skins of grapes. It helps prevent them from fermenting in place.
posted by dws at 10:32 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Seconding Blazecock Pileon's answer: Homebrew. Or, make friends with people who do. I'm not allergic, but the sulfites in commercial wine bother me a little. My sister has a bad reaction to a lot of commercial wine because of sulfites. The wine that I make is very, very low in sulfites, and we both enjoy my wines quite a bit.
posted by xedrik at 10:51 PM on March 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Whenever I asked local winemongers about sulfite-free wine, they would launch into a litany of all the foods around that contain sulfites - canned tuna, bacon, sausage, hot peppers, etc - and ask me if I had reactions to those as well. Sometimes it's wine plus one of those on the same day, so be aware of that.

It's probably just as well that I really like beer. Except for the waistline part.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 4:07 AM on March 12, 2012

I basically came in to say the same thing as wnissen. Most of my favorite winemakers from France add little-to-no sulfites to their wine. This can strongly change the wine, though, because it makes it more prone to oxidation and sensitive to the conditions in how it got to you. For example, Lapierre, mentioned above, bottles both a no-sulfite Morgon that stays in France and a low-sulfite one that is shipped over the oceans. However, low levels of sulfites occur naturally in grapes, as was mentioned. I forget the details of where I read this, but the requirement for putting the term "contains sulfites" on a bottle is roughly twice what occurs naturally. Conventional wines with added sulfites have roughly ten times as much as that natural level. It's enough of a difference that it would be worth trying.

Good luck! I hope for your sake that some of these no-added-wines work for you.
posted by Schismatic at 4:29 AM on March 12, 2012

I can't believe no one has said this yet: SEE AN ALLERGIST. If you can afford to see one at all, go. Get a recommendation your PCP or from someone you know with a food allergy or bad seasonal allergies (because when you go to an allergist you want to go to a good allergist).

Food allergies are no joke. You need to figure out how allergic you are to sulfites, and whether your allergy is just an annoyance or something potentially life-threatening. If you have a mild allergy may be okay for you to indulge in low-sulfite / "sulfite-free" wines now and again.

If it's life threatening, though, you may need to avoid all wine carefully and carry an Epi-Pen. I hope you have the mild, annoyance type of allergy, but it sounds like your allergy is still in the development phase, so you would not be able to judge how severe your allergy is from the reactions you've had thus far. The only way to start to figure this out, OTHER than experimenting with food until you give yourself a reaction bad enough to put you in the hospital (which I do not recommend) is to see a doctor and get some blood work done.

I had a good college friend who was very allergic to sulfites, and he had to avoid all wine, and it sucked. I wish I had been nicer about helping him find alternatives at the time. (Now that I'm a mother to a kid with a food allergy, I have a much better understanding of how hard it is for people who suffer from them.) Anyway, he drank a lot of sake. (It helped that he lived above a sushi bar.)
posted by BlueJae at 6:49 AM on March 12, 2012

Sure it's sulfites and not tannins? But yea, see an allergist.

I homebrew, and I never, ever, ever, ever ever add sulfites because they're gross, and I've bottle aged brews as long as 4 years with no ill effects, I just use dark bottles. I believe, and I may be incorrect, that most places use sulfites in wine because they kill the yeast before the alcohol attenuates to maximum potential--they're added at the alcohol level the producer wants the product, right before they start the "conditioning" phase. Also, after corking, CO2 production from surviving yeast can fizz the liquid, depending on how much sugar is left, how much alcohol, pressure inside the bottle, and which strain of yeast.

But, yea, there's plenty of non-sulfited wine. In fact, in my experience, the better the wine the less probability it has sulfites in it.
posted by TomMelee at 8:29 AM on March 12, 2012

My mom also can't tolerate the sulfites in wines. She has decided to just give it up on a day to day basis, as truly sulfite free wines are really hard to find in her area, but when she visits me here in NY, she takes advantage of the availability of sulfite free options.
posted by ocherdraco at 9:43 AM on March 12, 2012

My mom has the same thing. And, yeah, she's had to give up all wine.
posted by MsMolly at 10:18 AM on March 12, 2012

It's not an allergy – it's a sensitivity


A reaction involving respiratory symptoms and hives IS AN ALLERGIC REACTION. "Sensitivities" entail only gastro-intestinal issues (as in "eggs give me gas").

The fact that this is adult-onset tells me that it can become fatal, and quickly. OP, you need to stop consuming sulfites- now.
posted by ethnomethodologist at 10:52 AM on March 12, 2012

I believe, and I may be incorrect, that most places use sulfites in wine because they kill the yeast before the alcohol attenuates to maximum potential--they're added at the alcohol level the producer wants the product, right before they start the "conditioning" phase.

Also very commonly used to kill the indigenous yeasts on the grape skins at crushing.
posted by JPD at 11:29 AM on March 12, 2012

Also there are two types of sulfite free wine - hipster stuff that can be great but is very tender and suffers from poor storage, and industrial stuff that isn't worth drinking. The industrial stuff sucks because they can't just take the sulfites out.
posted by JPD at 11:31 AM on March 12, 2012

Delete if this is a derail:
But I was taught that a low-temp pasteurize would kill indigenous yeast without damaging the profile? EG: 131f @ 6 hours (or higher for less long?)
posted by TomMelee at 12:37 PM on March 12, 2012

You don't heat the juice for any quality wine.

Kosher wine you might (I think) and maybe some super cheap industrial swill.
posted by JPD at 12:45 PM on March 12, 2012

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