Could you be allergic to wine?

01:38, Aug 09 2011

Every time someone complains that they can't drink a particular kind of wine because it gives them a headache my first instinct it to suggest they consume just one instead of three bottles when they have a tipple and the problem will go away.

But seriously. According to some estimates up to 8 per cent of all drinkers have some form of allergic reaction to certain wines or styles of wine. These can include runny noses, skin rashes, all sorts of things. And yes, headaches too.

In fact a column I wrote on the subject some years ago remains one of the most widely read that I have ever written if the feedback I received is any indication.

Since then, however, research has led to some new theories about allergens in wine and the suggestion that it could be possible to produce wines that don't cause such severe reactions in some people or no reactions at all.

The answer could lie in research being carried out in Denmark by a group of scientists who reported earlier this year that they had isolated molecules in wine that may be the source of a large number of these allergies.

And they bear little or no relationship to the sulphites, tannins and pesticides accused – often falsely, it seems – of causing these reactions.


Dr Giuseppe Palmisano, the son of an Italian winemaker, says glycoproteins – proteins coated with sugars – could be the problem.

The good doctor and his colleagues reached this conclusion after isolating 28 glycoproteins in a chardonnay and comparing them against a database of known allergens.

Three stood out. One is similar to allergenic proteins found in latex and pears. Another looks like a second latex protein and an olive protein, both known allergens. The third resembles one of the most rampant allergens of them all, a ragweed protein that causes hay fever.

Dr Palmisano and his team have now turned their attention to other grapes, both red and white from various regions, and they suspect this new research will yield much the same result.

Not only could this lead to winemaking techniques that would reduce or remove the offending molecules but also demystify many misconceptions about allergic reactions to wine.

Meantime, those who believe pesticides and herbicides are responsible for their discomfort should remember both are used sparingly in quality wines and most are cleansed during fermentation.

Those who believe sulphites, added in the form of hydrogen sulphide to preserve wine, are the cause of their distress can confirm their suspicions by scoffing a few dried apricots, which are loaded with more sulphur than any glass of chardonnay. The "contains sulphites" warning on wine bottle labels is mainly for the benefit of the 5 per cent of asthmatics who are extremely sensitive.

Those who believe that the cause of their headaches are the antioxidants found in skins, seeds and stems of grapes as well as wooden barrels should try a cup of tea and a bowl of walnuts. Both are also loaded with the stuff.

And anyone who reacts to beer and spirits as well as wine with a sniff, a sneeze, a wheeze or a thumping head? Just give up the booze.

The more fortunate should try these:

Brown Brothers 2009 Victoria Shiraz, $18.99
A family label you can always rely on to present wines that deliver, in this case lush, sweet black berries seasoned with pepper and spice. Value.

Mills Reef 2009 Reserve Hawke's Bay Merlot, $25
Another gutsy, good value red from the Preston stable. A mouthful of berries that will warm the cockles of any heart at this time of the year.

Russian Jack 2010 Martinborough Pinot Noir, about $22
A pretty, cherried pinot that 's built for simple pleasures and delivers in triplicate. A very pleasant drink.

Villa Maria 2011 Private Bin Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, $21.99
A typically herbaceous, juicy example of Marlborough in a bottle. One of this country's most consistent sauvignon blancs.

The Southland Times