BACKGROUND: Wine appears to be a significant trigger for asthma. Although sulfite additives have been implicated as a major cause of wine induced asthma, direct evidence is limited. Two studies were undertaken to assess sulfite reactivity in wine sensitive asthmatics. The first study assessed sensitivity to sulfites in wine using a single dose sulfited wine challenge protocol followed by a double blind, placebo controlled challenge. In the second study a cumulative dose sulfited wine challenge protocol was employed to establish if wine sensitive asthmatics as a group have an increased sensitivity to sulfites. METHODS: In study 1, 24 asthmatic patients with a strong history of wine induced asthma were screened. Subjects showing positive responses to single blind high sulfite (300 ppm) wine challenge were rechallenged on separate days in a double blind, placebo controlled fashion with wines of varying sulfite levels to characterise their responses to these drinks. In study 2, wine sensitive asthmatic patients (n=12) and control asthmatics (n=6) were challenged cumulatively with wine containing increasing concentrations of sulfite in order to characterise further their sensitivity to sulfites in wine. RESULTS: Four of the 24 self-reporting wine sensitive asthmatic patients were found to respond to sulfite additives in wine when challenged in a single dose fashion (study 1). In the double blind dose-response study all four had a significant fall in forced expiratory volume in one second (FEV(1)) (>15% from baseline) following exposure to wine containing 300 ppm sulfite, but did not respond to wines containing 20, 75 or 150 ppm sulfite. Responses were maximal at 5 minutes (mean (SD) maximal decline in FEV(1) 28.7 (13)%) and took 15-60 minutes to return to baseline levels. In the cumulative dose-response study (study 2) no significant difference was observed in any of the lung function parameters measured (FEV(1), peak expiratory flow (PEF), mid phase forced expiratory flow (FEF(25-75))) between wine sensitive and normal asthmatic subjects. CONCLUSIONS: Only a small number of wine sensitive asthmatic patients responded to a single dose challenge with sulfited wine under laboratory conditions. This may suggest that the role of sulfites and/or wine in triggering asthmatic responses has been overestimated. Alternatively, cofactors or other components in wine may play an important role in wine induced asthma. Cumulative sulfite dose challenges did not detect an increased sensitivity to sulfite in wine sensitive asthmatics and an alternative approach to identifying sulfite/wine sensitive asthma may be required.