What are Sulphites?
Basically, a collective term used to describe chemicals containing Sulphur, a naturally occurring element found on Earth. It has been used as a preservative in food and drink since ancient times. It has been mention in texts to do with wine making as far back as the Greek, Egyptian and Roman empires and Biblical times ('Brimstone'). It is an important disinfectant, stabilising and anti oxidant agent. In fact, they are created as a bi product of yeast themselves in fermentation- making them impossible to avoid completely.
Are Sulphites harmful?
No, unless in very high quantities and released in the gas form- Sulphur Dioxide. This can cause an unpleasant 'eggy' smell and irritate the throat slightly in some people. However, it can cause serious issues for asthmatics. This is why any foodstuffs (including wine) have to be labelled if containing over a certain amount. However, the levels in wine are far below most other foods such as dried fruits and tinned items. Regular (not 'organic' or 'natural/Sulphur free') wines contain levels much lower than dried fruit. In fact, it is in a wine maker's best interest to keep them as low as possible- high levels can begin to cause offensive odours and/or muffle the appealing flavours in wines. Much more used to be added, to offset sloppy wine making. Something that in the modern age of stainless steel, good hygiene and temperature control thankfully does not happen anymore, whatever the price point. It's simply not acceptable, you'd quickly go out of business as consumers have plenty of choice of well made examples now from all over the world.
Do sulphites in red wine give me headaches?
Believe it or not, there are typically greater amounts of sulphites found in white wines, than there are red. So it's definitely not the Sulphites you're 'allergic' to giving you headaches! It is more likely to do with the alcohol levels, which red wines typically have higher percentage abv of. People have different natural levels of the enzymes required to process alcohol in their bodies. Those with less find it harder to work off the alcohol they have consumed, and therefore the toxins are left in the body longer. This causes the flushes, faster pulse rates and headaches.
What are natural/low Sulphite wines?
Basically wines where the wine maker deliberately uses as fewer additives and 'unnatural' fermentation techniques as possible. This includes not adding Sulphite preservatives, so levels are less than 'regular' wine. However, this presents a whole host of problems and challenges. The maker has to be very careful to follow strict hygiene practices, and be very quick. Often the wine will have to be pasteurised, like milk, to stop the wine going off in bottle. As mentioned before, small amounts of sulhpites are unavoidable in wine. Quite often these natural wines are prone to farmyardy smells and less fruity natures even with careful handling. They also tend to not last as long, and need to be drunk as soon as possible. Gérard Bertrand, a prominent wine maker from the Languedoc in the south of France is a big believer in natural wines. If you want to give them a try, his wines can be found at all price points in most supermarkets. The warm, drier climate of the Languedoc makes producing natural, organic and biodynamic wines much easier as their are less pests!