Does wine make you sneeze?

Pesky sulphur dioxide! - but is it really always to blame?

by: Cathy Marston | 01 Dec 2010

Picture the scene – you’re on a romantic first date, in a lovely restaurant, feeling fabulous, you pick up your wine, clink glasses and take a sip. And then sneeze your mouthful of wine all over your hot date who up-sticks and leaves in disgust. Welcome to the world of wine allergies, something which affects a small but increasing number of people every day.

Most of the blame for wine-induced sneezes, sniffles, headaches and asthma attacks generally falls on sulphur dioxide, although recent research has shown that there are many other things in wine such as histamines and tannin which are just as likely to cause these reactions as sulphur. Sulphur levels in wine are strictly controlled – there is actually more sulphur in dried fruit and Vienna sausages when measured as parts per million – and, although it is possible to reduce the amount of sulphur in wine, it can never be an entirely sulphur-free product as some of this naturally-occurring chemical is produced during fermentation (This goes for organic wines as well).

So if it is produced naturally in winemaking – why do you need to add any extra? Sulphur dioxide is a very valuable product and carries out two important tasks when making wine.

1.    It kills off any unwanted bacteria on the grapes, in particular, the wild yeasts which are found on the skin. This allows the winemaker to control the fermentation process and ensure that the flavours produced are the desired ones!

2.    The second job of sulphur dioxide is that of a preservative, particularly in white wines which don’t spend time in barrels. As soon as any oxygen comes in contact with grape juice, oxidation begins to occur – the same process as a cut apple turning brown. Because winemakers don’t want the flavours or colour to change whilst fermentation is taking place, they prevent oxidation by adding sulphur dioxide thus making sure they keep the wine fresh.

If you are hypersensitive to sulphur in wine – what can you do about it? Until recently, there have only been a couple of wines available in SA which had no sulphur added. This week saw the launch of 2 new wines by Stellenzicht, both of which contain only tiny amounts of naturally-occurring sulphur dioxide. Winemaker Guy Webber says that making a wine without adding sulphur began as an experiment to see how far through the winemaking process he could get without interfering. His first wine, a 2007 Petit Verdot, went far better than expected so he was emboldened to try it again, this time with a white wine.

The 2009 Stellenzicht Cellarmaster’s Release Chardonnay is a rich, tangy, unwooded version with lively acidity and lots of marzipan and almond notes. Making white wine without adding sulphur is much harder than making red wine and because of this, Guy did several unusual things to keep the wine intact such as not filtering or cold-stabilising because it increases the chances of exposure to oxygen dramatically (“I like taking risks, but they must be at least a little bit calculated!”), adding dry ice to the bottles before the wine is poured in and leaving the wine on the lees for more than 12 months to allow it to go through a natural malolactic fermentation which rendered it more stable. So if you are expecting a ‘normal’ unwooded chardonnay, then you’re in for a surprise as this version is much richer, both in colour and flavour, and makes an excellent partner for food.

For most people, the levels of sulphur in wine are too low to detect and have absolutely no adverse effect on them whatsoever. But for the rare, unlucky individual who genuinely suffers, these wines could be the answer to their vinous prayers!

The 2009 Stellenzicht Cellarmaster’s Release Chardonnay and the 2008 Stellenzicht Cellarmaster’s Release Petit Verdot are available from specialist wine retailers and should cost around R90 and R115 per bottle respectively.

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