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Gasping for a Wine?

by Andrew McNaughton

Wheezing, puffing, coughing, hot flushes? “Don’t worry about me, it’s just the wine talking.” Forget about the potential hangover, (or worrying it’s menopause), it’s not the alcohol you have to worry about. For the unfortunate few, sulphites lurking in their vino can trigger an allergic reaction, hence, wheeze, puff, cough, etc. You can live perfectly okay without peanuts and bees (actually, probably need bees), but without wine? Surely not?

So why are these chemicals in our wine in the first place, is it another ‘modern food plot’ to destroy our health? Well, no, seems the Romans were keen on sulphur in their wines too, burning it in wine containers before filling them to prevent spoiling. Mind you, they were probably swigging it from pewter goblets and suffering from varying degrees of lead-induced madness. A little wheezing and coughing hardly mattered. Sulphur in its various forms has preservative properties, an ‘anti-oxidant’ in modern parlance. It also inhibits growth of unwanted yeast and bacteria. Oddly, it’s wondrous properties are rarely trumpeted on wine labels, instead it’s coyly described as one or more of the following:

220 - sulphur dioxide 221 - sodium sulphite 222 - sodium bisulphite 223 - sodium metabisulphite 224 - potassium metabisulphite 226 - calcium sulphite 227 - calcium and bisulphite 228 - potassium bisulphite

The enchantingly named ‘220’ is the commonest form of sulphite preservative, and is  blended (by artisan chemists?) with the wine by pumping sulphur dioxide (SO
2) gas directly into it. The other forms are sulphur salts, and are generally dissolved before being mixed in. Before leaping on your organic high-horse, keep in mind all fermentation processes produce some traces of SO2. Escape from sulphites sounds impossible. Is it? The reassuring answer is ‘yes, and no’.

Red wines are your best bet, as naturally occurring tannins from the grape skins offer some protection against spoiling. Consequently, less SO
2 is needed to keep them well preserved. Cheap cask wine (there’s expensive cask wine?) has proportionally more SO2, plastic being relatively porous to gasses compared to glass. The wine is likely poorer quality and production standards suspect in some cases. Bring on the SO2. Even good quality white wine usually has much more SO2 than an equivalent red wine, so keep that in mind too.

Irritatingly, literally as well as figuratively, sensitivity to SO
2 is difficult to diagnose. A few people test positive with a standard scratch test for allergens, but most people do not. Susceptibility is usually determined by ‘going for it’ and working out what triggers the reaction and what doesn’t. With wine, it’s associated with inhaling the volatile gas during the swallowing process. This may cause an irritant-induced contraction of the airways in the lungs, which often has a characteristic rapid onset. Some asthmatics may also have a compromised biochemistry, their copy of the enzyme sulphite oxidase being inefficient at breaking it down.

There is however some hope for the gasping wine buff, a product called SO
2GO ( claims to remove much of the offending chemical from your bottle of wine. The principle seems to be associated with hydrogen peroxide, which saturates the wine with oxygen, binding the sulphur and neutralising it. This method is used by commercial wine producers to clear sulphites, this product lets the consumer give it a go too. Anecdotal evidence suggests it might be worth experimenting on a cheap-ish bottle of wine to see if it works for you.

Final words of advice: If you have an allergy to SO
2, and want to look like a menopausal asthmatic in a hayfield, drink cheap white wine from a cask. Otherwise, stick to good quality reds - in a bottle - and use a glass, it looks classier.
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