Have you recently experienced an allergic reaction but did not know what you were reacting to? Well, if you drink wine, you may in fact have reacted to a hidden ingredient in your favourite tipple.
In the UK, current food labelling regulations do not require any drinks with an alcohol content exceeding 1.2% by volume to list all their ingredients. So, for the majority of wines, we have little idea of what we’re actually drinking – although things may be changing soon – see below.
So what allergens
are in wine?
Most of us are aware of the obvious allergens in wine such as grapes and yeast, but these tend not to be the problem – if you are allergic to yeast or grapes you would be rather silly to be drinking wine anyway (although if yeast is the problem you may still be able to drink champagne – see below).
Sulphites are however a common problem – this is a preservative used to keep the wine drinkable for longer periods and is known to cause problems for many people (see this article on sulphite allergy). However, identifying the presence of sulphites is less of an issue as, under EU rules, sulphites now have to be labelled on the bottle if the finished wine contains more than 10 milligrams per litre of sulphur dioxide (which most stable wines do).
It is however the hidden, unexpected ingredients that are the real problem. Usually added in the processing of wine – to improve the flavour, stop it going cloudy or for other technical reasons – these ‘fining’ agents are commonly used in many types of wine.
Strictly speaking they are not an ingredient as the fining agent is ‘passed through’ the wine – but small traces may remain in the wine once bottled and so are likely to cause problems for those with a severe allergies.
The most commonly used of these include:
• Casein – cow’s milk protein
• Albumin – egg whites
• Chitin – from shellfish
• Gelatine – from cow or pig
• Isinglass – extracted from fish swim bladders
As you can see, that covers quite a lot of the allergic population!
What is the ‘official’ position?
While, as yet, there is no sign of legislation requiring all ingredients to be listed on wine bottles, an EU directive has been issued which requires the listing of milk and egg products used in the fining process from 31 May 2009. However, the wine manufacturers will still be able to use up old stocks, so labelling for milk and egg products may remain a bit of a minefield for a while after that.
However, this is not yet legislation. The wine industry has until that date to argue that milk products should be exempt from the labelling requirements. Indeed, fish products have already been made ‘permanently exempt’ from any allergen listing requirements. So the situation remains frustrating. But while our alcoholic labelling policy in this country may seem archaic there is no need to despair as, until the legislation does change, there is a whole bank of useful information available.
A brief shortlist of wines that are free of milk, egg, and fish allergens, sulphite free and are organic – see the websites opposite. This is only a starting point and being yeast intolerant, I have only tasted the champagne (delicious) so cannot comment on the taste of the others!
Country/Type - Manufacturer - Name
French Champagne - AOC - Carte Rouge/Carte d’or
French Red - VDP - Des Bouches du Rhône
Australian White - Robinvale - Chardonnay
Spanish Rose - Albet i Noya - DO Penedès Pinot Noir
Italian Sparkling - Bosco del Merlo - IGT Prosecco del Veneto
French White - Château Richard - AOC Bergerac Sec
South African Red - Stellar Organics - Live-a-Little Ravishing Red
Californian White - Fetzer Bonterra - Chardonnay
Finding Allergen-free Wine and Champagne
One: If you are intolerant to yeast, drink champagne!
Being yeast intolerant, I was so pleased when I found out.
In traditional champagne making, the wine is initially fermented in the bottle. The bottles are ‘riddled’ which means that they are gradually inverted over an extended period of time until they are upside-down. This collects a plug of yeast and sediment in the bottle neck. The bottle necks are then frozen to solidify the plug, then the bottles are opened and the plug ‘disgorged’ – shot out by the pressure built up in the bottle. This leaves behind crystal-clear, yeast-free champagne – and a very happy yeast-intolerant me!
Two: Shop at food retailers with ‘honest labelling policies’.
The Co-op follows an ‘Honest Labelling Policy’, which means that all ingredients, nutritional and allergenic properties of the product will be clearly stated on the information panel, allowing customers to avoid any unsuitable foods or drinks. This includes alcoholic drinks which makes the Co-Op one of the most allergy-aware supermarkets.
When I asked similar questions of some of the other larger supermarkets I did not get particularly helpful replies. Hopefully this might change in the future.
Three: Buy vegan wine
Other groups who struggle with wine labelling problems are vegans and vegetarians. For obvious reasons, a vegan wishes to know whether egg, milk or fish products have been used in the fining process.
Fortunately, as a result of vegan pressure, information as to whether a wine is suitable for vegans is increasingly available. This means that where your allergy is to one or more of these foods you can use the ‘vegan’ suitability tag to determine if it OK for you to drink.
Some manufacturers do indicate this on the bottle, but not enough of them to be particularly useful.
The best central resource I have found on vegan suitability is an excellent website called www.veggiewines.co.uk.
It uses a simple tick box system to indicate a wine’s suitability for vegans and covers all kinds of wine, as well as some beers and spirits. The website allows you to search for specific supermarket products, so you can shop for wines along with your normal weekly shop. Thank you to Matt of Veggiewines for his assistance in my research.
Four: Shop for Organic WineIf you want to avoid sulphites and other additives opt for organic wine. The range of organic wine is expanding and good quality wines are available online or by mail order from a range of sites.
Many of the organic wines also indicate whether the wine is suitable for vegans.
There are many websites out there so get searching, but I would recommend:
• The Pure Wine Company (www.purewine.co.uk – 0844 800 9157)
Really wide range of wines and champagnes from around the world, with prices starting from under £20 and delivery at £6.95 per order. Website specifies whether each wine is suitable for vegans.
• Vintage Roots (www.vintageroots.co.uk – 0800 980 4992)
This website has an excellent search facility allowing you to search for your exact requirements. You can specify wine by country, type, and whether it’s vegan, making it really easy to shop.
As well as organic wine, they also supply organic beers, ciders and spirits. Delivery is £6.95 an order and many of the wines are available in half or quarter bottles, ideal for if you’re the only allergic person in a couple or family.
If you prefer to do your wine shopping at the supermarket, Sainsbury’s own brand ‘Taste the difference’ and ‘SO Organic’ wines (plus beer and cider), now have the suitability for vegetarians or vegans indicated on the back label of the product concerned.
Sainsbury’s also told me that they are currently working with their suppliers to have the suitable for vegetarians or vegans indicated on the back label where applicable on other products too.
I hope this information has been helpful – so happy allergy-free tasting! I am now off to research allergen-free beers and spirits ...
First Published July 2008
More articles on alcohol
Back to top