A number of readers have recently asked about wine allergies. One person gets swollen fingers but only from red wine. Another becomes flush. Some people, myself included, experience mild congestion. Others get headaches. Are we allergic to wine? Is there anything we can do about it? Well, yes and no. And no and yes. In other words: It depends. I asked a number of experts in the field of wine and allergies, read several research papers, and there's not a simple explanation. However, there was one surprise: "Adverse reactions to wine are not true food allergies," says Dr. Steven Taylor, head of the department of food science and technology at the University of Nebraska. Food allergies involve the immune system, he says. Sensitivity to wine doesn't, and it's easier to treat. "If you have a true allergy, even a small amount of the offending food will give you a reaction," he explains, "whereas a sensitivityyou can usually ingest some of the food without experiencing a reaction." Nonetheless, if you have an adverse reaction to wine you should talk to your doctor. The most obvious solution, of course, is to abstain. But if you like wine and want to continue to enjoy it in moderation, read on. Just remember: You asked. And, no, there is no cure for a hangover. What wine is"Wine is a lot more chemically complex than the average person realizes," says Dr. Bruce Zoecklein, state enologist and head of the Enology Grape Chemistry Group at Virginia Tech's food science and technology department. "The phenolic constituents from one variety to another are wildly different." Phenolics? Chemistry? We're afraid so. Wine is a highly complex suspension of chemical compounds phenols, amines, alcohol, sulfites produced through a series of chemical reactions, such as fermentation, stabilization, aging and fining. But there's more: The chemical composition of wine varies among the many different varieties of grapes, among vineyards and among vintages. In addition, production methods vary among winemakers. This makes collecting specific consumer-friendly information a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall. What we do know is this: there can be a variety of allergens in wine trace proteins from egg, milk and fish compounds used to clarify wine; also molds and yeasts, even the grapes themselves. "There have been reactions to those," says Taylor, "especially the egg one, and those are true food allergies." Wine also contains components that can augment allergic responses. But while the potential is there for people to experience allergic reactions to these substances, according to Zoecklein "most perceived allergies to wine are the result of one of three types of components": histamine, phenols, and sulfites. Histamine Histamine is naturally present in the body and "is one of the chemicals that drives allergic reactions," says Dr. Michael Blumberg of Virginia Adult and Pediatric Allergy and Asthma in Richmond. Alcohol, according to information from one study, also acts to release the body's own histamine. On top of that, there is histamine in the wine, a product of fermentation. "Most people have enzymes that break the histamine down" and remove it from the system, says Blumberg. But in some people that enzyme, diamine oxidase, is deficient. And even in people with the enzyme, the flood of histamine from drinking wine can overpower the system's ability to keep up, and allergy-type symptoms can result, symptoms like congestion, sneezing, flush, diarrhea, and headache. One study suggests that the highest levels of histamine occur in wines that go through a process called malolactic fermentation (MLF). MLF accounts for the butterlike flavor of some chardonnay. But some red wines go through a lesser degree of MLF to lower their acidity. Degrees vary, of course, and nothing is printed on the label. Aside from taking good notes about which wines cause reactions and under what circumstances, "there's not a whole lot you can do about [histamine] in wine," says Zoecklein. What's a phenol? Phenols are a bit trickier. In wine they are the chemical compounds responsible for taste, aroma and color. "Like coffee and other products, wine contains a wide array of phenolic components," explains Zoecklein. Many, he adds, "are very positive contributors to health." Tannins, for example, are phenolic compounds. Though the role of phenols in reactions to wine "is far from substantiated," according to the University of Nebraska's Taylor, "there is lots of speculation." And not just about wine. "Chocolate would be another food with lots of phenols in it," he says. "People attribute a lot of adverse reactions to chocolate as well." One way to test for phenol sensitivity, says Virginia Tech's Zoecklein, is first to differentiate reactions to red and to white wine. "Red wines have high levels of phenols," he says. "If a consumer has no allergenic-type response to the consumption of white wines as opposed to red, that's an inclination that their allergenic response is a function of phenolic compounds." Phenols also come from the oak barrels in which many wines are fermented or aged, so this experiment requires selecting a white wine that doesn't have barrel phenols, a traditional Riesling, for example, and comparing it against any traditionally produced red wine other than a blush or Beaujolais-style wine. Of course, white wine is not devoid of phenols, and at this point your research has only just begun. There is an ocean of white and a sea of red to compare. To add to the mystery, white wine typically contains higher levels of a third source of perceived allergic reactions: sulphur dioxide. Contains sulfites We know about sulfites in wine, of course, because of a 1988 federal law mandating that labels carry the warning "contains sulfites." It's there for good reason. Some people can experience asthma from ingesting sulfites, and for some asthmatics ingesting sulfites can be deadly. "That's a real entity," says Taylor. "It's probably not as common as people think, but it does occur." Sulphur dioxide (the sulfite in wine) is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process and is present to varying degrees in all wine. Nearly all winemakers also add sulphur dioxide to wine at some point in the process for three reasons: It neutralizes wild yeasts; it kills bacteria; and it keeps wine from turning into vinegar. "There is no better substitute for sulphur dioxide," says Zoecklein. "People wouldn't use it if it didn't improve wine quality. And the amount is far less than is in many other foods," he says. While there is no such thing as sulfite-free wine, people seeking to avoid added preservatives do have options. A handful of wineries in the United States, mostly in California, make wine without added sulphur dioxide: Organic Wine Works, Orleans Hill, Badger Mountain (Oregon), Larocca Vineyards, Nevada Wine Company and Frey Vineyards. "It's technically challenging to make wines without sulfites," explains Katrina Frey of Napa's Frey Vineyards, "but we have managed to produce wines we're very proud of." But be careful not to confuse these with organic wines. No matter what the shelf-talker says at the store, there is no such thing. According to the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms, the federal agency that regulates the wine industry, no wine can claim to be organic. While there is wine "made from organically grown grapes," that designation refers to a method of grape farming (organic farming), not wine making. It's a fine but important distinction. Read the label closely and you'll see that any organic claims are qualified by a reference to the standards of a particular state. If you buy a wine that says it's organic "according to the law of " you might want to find out how that state's law defines "organic." Now, aren't you glad you
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