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The question

I love wine but am allergic to sulphites. Any suggestions?

The answer

I do, and I get the question often. But I must lead with a warning: For people with severe sulphite sensitivity, the only solution is wine abstinence.

The correct word, by the way, is "sensitivity". Sulphites are not proteins, so they don't cause allergic reactions, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency.

So much for terminology. Sensitivity to sulphites varies in intensity. To take the worst-case scenario (though I'm not a physician and have merely conversed with researchers on the matter), for a small proportion of asthmatics – people generally well aware of their condition – sulphites can have very bad consequences on the body. At the other extreme, some people may develop just a mild, sneezing response.

All wine contains sulphites, which are produced naturally during fermentation (though the levels produced in the fermenting tank generally are very low). Sulphur dioxide (a sulphite) is used widely in wineries to curb unwanted microbial growth as well as to shield wine from oxygen, which can spoil fruit and yield off flavours. The crucial component that tends to cause problems is called "free sulphur dioxide," which is distinct from the relatively inert "bound" form. A wine typically will have both, so the label warning "contains sulphites" offers no indication of how much of the bad, compared with the inactive, stuff is present.

Your best route, assuming your sensitivity is mild, is to stick to wines labelled "organic." Legal definitions vary, but in most cases this means no, or very little, sulphur dioxide was added, so the total levels are likely to be extremely low. "Organic" is not the same as "made from organic grapes," though. That's another designation that ensures only that the fruit was farmed without inorganic pesticides and herbicides. These wines likely contain added sulphur dioxide.

One of the most reliable sources of information on low-sulphite wines is available on the Liquor Control Board of Ontario's website. It lists numerous wines along with their free-sulphur levels.

One excellent offering is Tin Barn Cabernet Sauvignon Cabernet Franc Merlot from California (not cheap, though, at $37.95 in Ontario). Australia's Yalumba Shiraz is not bad at $17.95, and so is Perrin Nature Côtes du Rhône from France at $16.95.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website.