I recently met a man who confessed that he was allergic to wine, but not to all wine. Whites and bubbly were completely out of the question, causing a severe respiratory emergency, but reds that were aged for a minimum of five years, (that’s right, five years) seemed to do this gentleman no harm at all. Was this some sort of lame cover-up for a serious case of wine snobbery – only aged Bordeaux for me! Or was there some kind of scientific explanation as to why aged reds were fair game for this peculiar wine-o-phobe?
Was it the sulfites in the wine that were causing the allergic reaction, or could it be the yeast used during the fermentation process? (Most wineries use sulfites as a preservative to protect the wine from microbial spoilage and to prolong the wine’s shelf life.) If either of these substances were the culprit, then shouldn’t sparklers, whites, and reds all cause the same allergic reaction since all three contain both sulfites and yeast? What was the source of this arbitrary variation in allergic reactions? This piqued my curiosity, to say the least, and got me thinking about the possible root causes of wine allergies.
Sulfites and Histamines
Let’s start with sulfites. Sulfites are frequently cited as the scapegoat for allergic reactions to wine and are often alleged to be the source of red wine-induced headaches. Yet the truth is that headaches are not a documented symptom of a sulfite allergy. Those mind-numbing headaches that can result from red wine consumption are most likely caused by histamines and flavonoids that are present in red wine, not by sulfites.
Histamines, which occur naturally in red wine, as well as in other fermented foods and beverages such as beer, aged cheeses, cured meats, soy products, vinegar, and sauerkraut, can also cause other inflammatory responses such as rosacea (rosy cheeks) and nasal congestion. While certainly uncomfortable, none of these histamine-induced symptoms is technically considered an allergic reaction to wine. Histamines are also present in white wine, but to a much lesser degree than in red, which explains why this syndrome has come to be known as “red wine headache” or RWH. Want to have your cake and eat it too? Rumor has it that if you pop a few aspirin or ibuprofen before you pop the cork on your favorite bottle of red, you’ll be able to avoid those dreaded headaches.
According to the FDA, only about 1 percent of the population is actually allergic to sulfites. Common sulfite allergy symptoms include skin rashes (redness, hives, itching, or swelling), respiratory responses such as wheezing and difficulty breathing, and gastrointestinal reactions such as nausea and stomach cramps. If you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms after consuming wine, experiment with natural wines that are labeled “no added sulfites.” Keep in mind though, that even if a wine is produced naturally without the addition of chemical sulfites, wine is never really 100% sulfite-free since sulfites are also a naturally occurring byproduct of the fermentation process.
Next on the list of suspects is yeast. Although fairly uncommon, an allergy to the yeast used in wine production may account for adverse reactions following wine consumption. One of the most common strains of commercial yeast used in wine fermentation is called Saccharomyces Cerevisiae or “brewer’s yeast.” Allergies to this type of yeast are most likely to occur in people who have an allergy to mold and fungus, and can result in symptoms such as migraine headaches, fatigue, nausea, diarrhea, skin irritation, and dryness in the throat. While most commercial wineries use brewer’s yeast to convert grape sugars to alcohol, wineries that opt to produce wine naturally, organically, or biodynamically employ wild yeasts that grow on the skins of grapes to jumpstart the fermentation process. Wines made with wild or natural yeasts are often labeled “wild ferment” and may prove to be a worthy alternative for people with allergies to brewer’s yeast. There is very little research available to back up such a claim, but it’s worth exploring.
The question remains as to why certain people are allergic to whites and sparklers, but not to reds and vice versa. What’s even more bewildering is the variation in allergic reactions based on the wine’s bottle age. I’m tempted to say that such variations are merely personal preferences masquerading as allergies, but that’s just the skeptic in me coming out because, incidentally, I’m not allergic to anything!
Image Credit: Creative Commons photo by handcoding