Mythbusting Sulfites and Tartrates

Sulfites Sulfites are the salts of sulfurous acids, which are naturally occurring in grapes and used by nature to prevent microbial growth. The issue among consumers is that sulfites are often mistakenly blamed for “wine headaches”.

It’s worth noting that sulfites are found organically in onions, garlic, and many other plants, and have been known to cause severe allergic reactions in certain individuals, (please note the word severe).

Through my wine studies, I once read that; “If sulfites want to bother you, they will, possibly by triggering your untimely death!” Sulfites are actually the only additive in use that is known to kill people. Having said that, only a handful of people (less than 20) have died in the U.S. since 1982. Still too many I think you’ll agree, but this number is minuscule in comparison to the amount of people who have died from an allergic reaction to peanuts!

"Contains Sulfites" is a mandatory statement on labels of wine sold in the United States, that is, if the wine contains 10 ppm or more of sulfites, (wine usually contains between 125-250 ppm). I hear people say all the time “I went to France last year and had this great bottle of wine that didn’t contain sulfites and I didn’t get headache from it!” This is because there are no sulfite labeling restrictions in the E.U.

The problem is that research on what actually does cause wine headaches is poor at best, but it certainly isn’t the sulfites. There is however something in wine that does cause a headache, but research on it is very minimal. Some sources think it may be the cogeners, which are an impurity normally found in a lower quality wine, or in dark alcohols. It also backs up (to some degree), the theory that cheap wines may give people headaches, when expensive wines don’t.

Another school of thought is that it could be the histamines, since histamines are in the skins of the grapes, and red wines spend time sitting on their skins to extract color, tannin, and flavor.

Personally I think a lot of it is to do with “user-error” i.e. either people drinking too much wine (if there is such a thing), drinking too much poor-quality wine, or drinking it too quickly. My best piece of advice is to try and narrow-down which wines are causing the problem, and then avoid those specific wines, at least until research improves!


Have you ever been diagnosed with a “bad cases of the tartrates”? No, it’s not some weird kind of illness!

Tartrates are often seen in white wines, and resemble small crystals or a salt-like substance. Wineries usually employ a procedure called cold stabilization (which brings the wine down to a near freezing temperature) in order to remove these tiny “wine diamonds”. Potassium Bitartrate (to give tartrates their full name) is actually a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. After the tartrates are removed, the winery can then go on to sell them to the baking industry as Cream of Tartar. Winemaking is the only known source of Cream of Tartar.

The challenge comes that in the U.S. (versus Europe) we’ve conditioned ourselves to seeing pure and absolutely clear wines, and anything that deviates from that is treated as being defective. I’ve actually even heard of wine distributors refusing to carry certain wines due to the presence of tartrates! In Europe, tartrates are greeted with open arms, with their presence being an indicator of a more naturally made wine. The simple fact is that if you let the wine warm up for a few minutes, normally they will just disappear.

Published: Aug. 9, 2012

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