Over the past decade, sulfites have become some of the most vilified, controversial, and misunderstood compounds in the wine world. They’ve been blamed for everything from headaches to congestion and subsequently avoided by consumers who have latched onto the association. Though most industry members understand that sulfites don’t cause headaches, the debate around sulfur dioxide (SO2) and its positive and negative effects on wine continues—and foregoing the addition of SO2 is commonplace for many natural winemakers.
That’s why Sophie Parker-Thomson, MW’s recent Institute of Masters of Wine research paper caused such a buzz. In it, she showed that biogenic amines (BAs)—the compounds that are more likely to be the actual culprit behind wine headaches—are higher in wines with no SO2 added before fermentation. Could this change the way that natural winemakers—and the wine community as a whole—view SO2 usage?
The Link Between Biogenic Amines and Headaches
The idea that biogenic amines cause wine headaches has been tossed around before, but because these compounds don’t come with a warning label on wine bottles, they haven’t received as much attention as sulfites. Biogenic amines—the most familiar of which is histamine—are produced by bacteria and found in fermented foods and beverages like wine, mold-ripened cheese, and cured meats. In sensitive individuals, BAs can trigger symptoms previously attributed to SO2, including headaches, and studies have shown wine drinkers aren’t immune from their ill effects.
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Certain compounds, like ethanol, actually inhibit our body’s ability to remove BAs from our system, and when enjoyed with wine, BA-rich foods can exacerbate the experience. This makes determining exact BA levels very challenging in everyday settings. Throw in the fact that everyone also has a unique BA sensitivity threshold, and it’s clear additional research is needed.
Parker-Thomson’s research indicated that wines with more than 30 milligrams per liter of SO2 added before fermentation had significantly lower biogenic amine levels. This is somewhat ironic, considering that many consumers currently attempt to avoid wine headaches by turning to natural wines—which are known for having low or no sulfur dioxide added.
Natural Wine’s Many Faces
There isn’t a definition of natural wine. People often jump to SO2 usage, but “the pillars for the natural wine movement are far greater than whether to use sulfur and, if so, how much,” says Tracey Rogers Brandt, the winemaker of Donkey and Goat in Berkeley, California. Those pillars entail working with responsibly farmed grapes, using indigenous yeast, avoiding winemaking additives, and forgoing filtration.
“The encouraging thing for winemakers is we’re not talking about egregiously high amounts of SO2,” says Parker-Thomson, who is based in Marlborough, New Zealand. “It’s a very moderate amount, added right at the start of fermentation, which will ensure that they [winemakers] can do … winemaking techniques [like skin contact and natural fermentation], but not risk toxic levels of BAs and consequent adverse health impacts in consumers.”
SO2 usage varies amongst natural winemakers and ultimately comes down to what they want to achieve. Some, like Rogers Brandt, are interested in preserving microbial terroir. “We focus much of our attention on the vineyard and idea of farming microbes to ensure healthy soil for our plants,” she notes. “In order to not kill all those healthy microbes in our fermentation vats, we’ve never automatically added sulfur at the start of fermentation. We don’t want to risk killing our native yeast.”
Others also prefer the vitality they find in these wines. “I had been drinking no/low sulfur wines for years before choosing to become a winemaker and have always enjoyed wines that are wild, unique, and alive,” says Noel Diaz of Purity Wine in Richmond, California. “So, it was natural for me to head in that direction once the decision was mine.”
“When done well, there’s an excitement to the wines—an energy that lifts you up, that can be missing in some conventional wines,” adds Chris Brockway of Broc Cellars in Berkeley, California.
Right or wrong, some people also attach no/low SO2 wines to health benefits—but they may be taking these health claims too personally. “I’ve never looked at low/no sulfur in terms of health benefits,” says Brockway. “To me it’s always been more about having wines that are alive. The health benefits have more to do with how the grapes are grown, whether it’s organic or biodynamic.”
But even if natural wine producers eschew SO2 for reasons beyond purported health claims, will this new connection between higher BA levels and no/low SO2 usage impact their winemaking decisions?
Parker-Thomson’s research has definitely sparked a conversation—one natural winemakers aren’t shying away from addressing. Intrigued by the initial research, Rogers Brandt plans to research the topic further. “I imagine this could make it on our list of experimentations for next year,” she says.
Others are considering other causes of high biogenic amine levels. “Typically, I think higher acid/lower pH wines contain lower amounts of biogenic amines,” explains Brockway. “My thought is to explore this route as opposed to trying to counter with higher levels of sulfur.”
It’s too early to tell how these findings will influence winemakers of all stripes, but Parker-Thomson is optimistic. “I hope the industry gets on board with this. There is an opportunity to cater to people who are sensitive to BAs so they can actually enjoy wine again with confidence,” she says. “We need to be tackling this head on.”
The only thing that is clear is that the sulfite discussion isn’t going away anytime soon—rather, it’s just re-emerged with another layer of complexity.
Diana Hawkins is a Certified Sommelier with a MSc in Wine Science who worked at top Chicago restaurants including the James Beard Award-winning Lula Cafe and three-Michelin-star Alinea. In 2017, she traded in her wine key for a pair of work boots and moved to Aotearoa New Zealand to pursue a winemaking career. She works as an assistant winemaker and is in the process of developing her own wine brand, Responsible Hedonist.