Roughly 8% of the world’s population is allergic to wine. These poor souls suffer stuffed-up sinuses, runny noses and headaches after consuming as little as one glass.
Until recently, many of these folks assumed that sulfites were the culprit. This belief is widespread in the United States, where every bottle of wine sold must bear the legend “Contains Sulfites.” Most wines are sulphured at some point in their development, but sulphur dioxide is a natural byproduct of fermentation, so the warning would be true even if no additional sulphur was added. In fact, only 1% of humanity is really allergic to sulfites, so it’s been evident for a while that the real problem lies elsewhere.
Now a group of researchers at the University of Southern Denmark think they have the answer, which has been published in the Journal of Proteome Research. The scientists studied a Chardonnay from Puglia and discovered 28 organic compounds that are similar to other allergens. These compounds are called glycoproteins—or, in common parlance, sugar-coated proteins.
At this point, no one seems sure exactly which glycoproteins are the culpits. When they’re identified, it may be possible to create the equivalent of a hypoallergenic wine by isolating the offending glycoproteins. At first this would be done chemically, but down the road winemakers might actually have the tools to produce an allergy-free wine. No one is yet certain of the impact this might have on a wine’s aroma, taste or overall personality.
In the meantime, if you’re one of the 1% who can’t tolerate sulfites, your best bet is to only consume wine from small-production estates. Why is this? If a winery is making millions of cases, they’re most likely buying fruit from dozens or even hundreds of growers; these grapes arrive at the winery at the same time, and can’t be crushed and fermented all at once. The winemaker is likely to spray the grapes with sulphur to prevent them from fermenting spontaneously in the summer heat, and then induce fermentation when he’s ready. Small properties are more likely to have a facility capable of processing all their fruit in one shot, thus eliminating the need for excess sulphur. The breakpoint seems to be around 40-50,000 cases. It’s either that, or wait for the scientists to track down those sugar-coated proteins.