Wine yeasts, Saccharomyces Cerevisae, have the special characteristic of tolerating exposure to sulphites which kill most other microorganisms. Fumigating vessels used for winemaking and wine storage by burning sulphur inside them has been used since the time of the ancient Greeks to produce wines, beers and ciders which are safe to drink and can be stably stored.
All wines contain some sulphites, as even if sulphite has not been added during the winemaking process it is a product of yeast metabolism. Most preserved foods contain sulphites as anti-oxidants to prevent loss of colour and as preservatives. In wine, the amounts are relatively tiny, and it is unusual to be sensitive to them.
Many wine drinkers assume that sulphites are the cause of wine headaches, but this is not the case. Research has established that wine headaches are a consequence of the presence of biogenic amines; histamine, tyramine, putrescine and others, which have been generated by contaminating bacteria, especially lacto-bacilli, which derive both from grapes and from contaminated wine-making vessels. It is good winemaking practice to selectively sterilise grapes with a small amount of sodium sulphite to kill contaminating bacteria while preserving the natural yeasts which will transform the grape must into wine. Thus, while sulphites are sometimes mistakenly thought responsible for wine headaches, paradoxically they help prevent them, by limiting production of biogenic amines.
Sulphites have a long history in winemaking, even though their chemistry was not known until little over a hundred years ago. Ancient Greeks and Romans stored their wine in pottery amphoras, and found if these were fumigated by burning sulphur inside them and wine quickly added, the wine was preserved and did not turn into vinegar. Wine also was preserved by adding pitch (from pine gum), which dissolved in the wine and altered the flavour. Other herbs were added to the pitch, to improve the flavour. This tradition is maintained in modern Greece, with Retsina. When the Romans invaded Gaul, in Northern France, they quickly copied the Gaulois who used oak barrels to store wine, beer, and other liquids. These had the great advantages of being easy to transport and resistant to damage. Just as pitch and burnt aromatic leaves had been found to affect wine flavours, storing wine in oak barrels became recognised as enhancing the flavours of many wines, especially reds. Barrels were routinely sterilised by burning sulphur inside them. For a period in the 15th century wines in Vienna became notorious for their sourness and in 1487 Frederick III, the King of Germany, issued a decree permitting the burning of sulphured oak chips in barrels.
Throughout the middle ages wine was transported in barrels for long distances using, where possible, canals and ocean-going ships rather than road transport. Winemaking regions developed on the basis of their proximity to canals, as well as favourable terroirs. Barrels were fumigated by burning sulphur candles inside them.
John Evelyn, the notable founding member of the Royal Society and author of the wonderful “Sylva, Or A Discourse of Forest Trees (1662)” - (this can be down-loaded from the Project Gutenberg website) - recommends for wine and cider making “In wines so some do lay Brimstone on a rag and by a wire let it down into the vessel and there fire it and when the vessel is full of the smoke the liquor speedily poured in ferments the better. I cannot condemn this for sulphur is more kind to the lungs than cider and the impurities will be discharged in the ferment.”
The amount of biogenic amines in a wine is affected by terroir and grape variety as well as wine-making practices. Malolactic fermentation in red wines and Chardonnays relies on lactobacilli, and these may generate biogenic amines. This is strain-dependent., some wild lactobacilli generate the amines, while others do not. Commercial strains of lactobacilli have been designed to not generate these amines. Susceptible people can ameliorate their actions by taking an anti-histamine pill.
For the last several thousand years many civilisations have found fermented drinks to be healthier and safer than drinking domestic water, as the acid and alcohol killed contaminating microorganisms. Well-made modern wines, consumed in moderation, remain life-enhancing and health promoting.
To summarize: contrary to popular belief, sulphites are not the cause of wine headaches. Wine
headaches are caused by biogenic amines, which are actually reduced by the use of sulphites during
winemaking. If you suffer from wine headaches, try taking an anti-histamine pill. Sulphites play a
vital role as an antioxidant that helps preserve wine, and they can be added by the winemaker but
they are also created naturally by yeast duing fermentation.