Wine Intelligencer: What are Sulfites and Tannins?

by tarynlachter

Sulfites and tannins have a bad rap.

They are said to be the source of “red wine headaches” and tend to be discouraged with the recent rise of organic and biodynamic wines.

Let’s talk a little more about what these are and what they actually do for your wine.

Sulfites and tannins have a bad rap. They are said to be the source of “red wine headaches” and tend to be discouraged with the recent rise of organic and biodynamic wines. Let’s talk a little more about what these are and what they actually do for your wine.

First, just to clear things up, we’re talking about sulfites not sulfates. Big difference. Sulfates are technically “salts of sulfuric acid” and are used in things like industrial soaps and detergents, which is why a lot of people don’t want them in their body wash or shampoo. We definitely don’t want to be ingesting them, either. 

Sulfites are used to preserve the wine and keep it from fermenting quickly and turning to vinegar. They’ve been used in natural foods and products for centuries and have been used in winemaking since the 1900s. You can find sulfites in almost any processed food you eat and many products that go through fermentation because they slow down the natural chemical reaction. They are essentially harmless unless you’re part of the small percentage of the population that has an actual sulfite allergy.

Fun fact: The United States is the only wine-producing country that requires winemakers to put their sulfite usage on the label.

Tannins are not sulfites, and they’re certainly not sulfates. In fact, tannins are a completely naturally occurring preservative that comes from the skin of the grapes and is released during the fermentation stage. We like tannins! They add that dry, slightly bitter quality that we get in a good red wine, and they keep it from turning to vinegar. 

You know how science says red wine has antioxidants and therefore you should have a glass of red wine a day for good heart health? Well those antioxidants come from the grape skins and therefore the tannins! See, we really like them.

“But sulfites and tannins cause red wine headaches!” This is a myth and a mean rumor. If you have a sulfite sensitivity, which is only about 1% of the general population, you’d actually have more issues with breathing than with headaches. Tannins aren’t a direct cause of headaches either. Tannin sensitivities do exist but they would be present when interacting with all kinds of things like chocolate, coffee, or even cinnamon, which all have the natural polyphenol that creates the tannins.

When people get migraines or headaches after drinking red wine, it’s more than likely from dehydration, and has nothing to do with the level of tannins. Now, it’s entirely possible that you just don’t like the taste of tannins which is totally okay! Red wines advertised as being more dry will most likely have higher levels of tannins so look for some that are less dry and you’ll find your sweet spot. 

Have a glass of water with every glass of wine and you’ll be a happy, no-headache camper!



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