Why we can’t blame sulfur anymore.

It’s no secret that sulfur is used in winemaking; surprisingly, it is a natural byproduct of fermentation and found in all wine.

Sulfur is added in winemaking for two main reasons: to prevent oxidation and to prevent microbial activity. The second reason of “preventing microbial activity” is key when making wine. The wrong kind of bacteria can cause disturbing aromatics and unwanted characteristics in high quality wines. Aside from the risk of wine flaws, bacterial activity can also create high levels of biogenic amines (our headache culprits).

Although a sulfur allergy was originally thought to cause headaches, recent studies have suggested that biogenic amines are considered a toxin and can cause adverse effects including headaches, migraines, and even food poisoning to sensitive consumers. In contrast, sulfur sensitivities do not cause headaches but rather hives and breathing issues (about 1% of the population is estimated to be allergic to sulfur). In adding sulfur to wine, we help to eliminate the production of these biogenic amines and their toxic effects.

What are Biogenic Amines?

Biogenic amines are typically found in fermenting foods and are not regulated outside of the seafood industry. The most common biogenic amines in wines are histamine, tyramine, putrescine, and cadaverine. Biogenic amines are more present in wines that have gone through malolactic fermentation; therefore, consumers sensitive to BAs may find that they have headaches when drinking red wines or even oaky chardonnays.

Want to nerd-out on biogenic amine information? We recommend this study.

Another headache offender that goes with all adult beverages is alcohol, of course. Drink too much wine and blame your headache on a histamine allergy? Sorry, but this kind of headache is due to the alcohol you ingested.

Sulfur Addition Amounts

As mentioned before, no wine is sulfite free. To be considered a “sulfur free wine” the wine must measure under 10 mg/L of free sulfur, however, without the proper amount of sulfur, the wine is exposed to bacterial and biogenic amine growth. In addition to headaches, the bacterial growth will also cause an increase in volatile acidity leading to unwanted odors.

We have a low intervention winemaking philosophy at Untamed, meaning that we don’t add anything to the wine that isn’t natural or beneficial. We maintain a constant free sulfite level of around 30 mg/L. This quantity is enough to preserve the quality of the wine, ward off bacteria including the growth of biogenic amines, avert oxidation, and completely safe to consume.

It is important to check each barrel frequently for sulfur levels, aromatics, and evaporation.

Next Time on Sipping on Science

Today we learned sulfur is safe and beneficial for our wine, but what happens if we don’t add it? Learn about volatile acidity and how acidic acid bacteria can destroy wine.