In the tasting room, occasionally someone will tell us, “I’m allergic to wine”. I found this intriguing, so I did some research. It’s rare, but there is a small group of sensitive people who are allergic to wine. Here's what I learned. I hope you find this informative.
To very sensitive people, there is something in wine that poses a real health risk! They’ll develop wine intolerance-like symptoms after drinking just a single glass of wine. Typically, these symptoms are associated only with red wines. These people may have headaches, rashes, diarrhea and/or nausea. They can also have life threatening symptoms such as a difficulty in shortness of breath and constriction of airway passages. Who would have thought that drinking wine could be dangerous to one’s health?!?
Since wine is one of, if not the, most chemically complex beverages, there are a few potential causes of these allergy symptoms. But before discussing these, let’s cover what an allergic symptom is.
Allergy symptoms occur when the immune system overreacts to something it identifies as dangerous (called an “allergen”). Histamine is released to help fight the allergen and which causes allergy symptoms. So in trying to protect itself, an overreacting immune system may actually cause more harm. We all react differently to histamine. Some reactions can be mild while others can be life threatening. The most common symptoms of wine allergies are headaches, skin rashes, flushed skin and swollen eyes.
So what are these allergens and where do they come from? Here’s a list of the more common ones (note, most are proteins) found in wine, or used in wine production, and a brief discussion of each:
SULFITES: Sulfites are a group of sulfur-based compounds that occur naturally in the wine making process. Sulfites are also added as a preservative in wines. Sulfites also found in beer, various fruit juices, fish, shellfish, potatoes, dried fruits, jams, canned vegetables and pickled foods. If you don’t experience allergy symptoms from any of these, then we can rule out sulfites as a cause.
CASEIN: Are you also allergic to milk? Casein is a milk protein used by some winemakers to bind to and remove tannins. Called “fining”, there are several commercially available products used to remove unwanted components that affect clarification, astringency, color, bitterness and aroma. Excess tannins can cause wines to be too astringent or “harsh”.
OVALBUMIN and LYSOZYME: Are you also allergic to eggs? These are proteins found in eggs and that, like Casein, are used as fining agents. Ovalbumin binds to tannins and precipitates from solution, thus removing tannins from the wine. Lysozyme is used to remove lactic acid bacteria (LAB) from solutions. LAB converts the sharper malic acid (also found in apples) to the softer lactic acid (found in milk).
GLUTEN: No, gluten is not added to wine. It was once common practice for coopers (barrel makers) to use a paste made from wheat flour, which would contain gluten, to seal the barrel’s heads or ends to the body of the barrel. These days, it’s common to use a wax to seal the barrel’s heads, as it’s cleaner and easier to use. Some traditional cooperages still use the wheat paste, but in very small amounts. Testing on wines aged in new barrels that used wheat paste showed these wines contained less than 10 parts per million of gluten. By FDA standards, products qualify as gluten-free is they contain less than 20 ppm.
What does this all mean? There are lots of other proteins and compounds used by winemakers that may cause allergic reactions. If you are sensitive to wine, I hope helped identify what may be causing you problems or at least eliminate the major allergens found in wine. For the rest of us, please continue enjoying your wine and appreciate that you’re in the majority who can!
Beck, J. (2013, July 30). Wine allergy: What the symptoms and common causes? Retrieved from http://www.naturalnews.com
Chorniak, J. (2007, Oct/Nov). A Clearer Understanding of Fining Agents. Retrieved from http://www.winemakermag.com
DeScenzo, R. (2016). Questions and Answers. Winemaker Quarterly, 2 (2), pp. 4-5.
Habertson, J. (2008). A Guide to the Fining of Wine. Washington State University, WSU Extension manual EM016.
Mogley, E. (2013, Aug. 14). Should I be worried about wine if I have a gluten allergy?. Retrieved from http://www.winespectator.com
Seidu, L. (2014, Sept). Allergies and Sulfite Sensitivity. Retrieved from http://www.webmd.com