When the colonists first arrived in the US from Europe, they considered water unhealthy to drink compared to wine.1 "Water is not wholesome solely by itself for an Englishman," wrote dietician Andrew Boorde in the 1500's. "If any man do use to drink water with wine, let it be purely strained, and then [boil] it; and after it be cold, let him put it to his wine."
That, of course, was probably more a reflection of the quality of drinking water in most cities at the time than an endorsement of wine itself. In our times, though, debate rages on about whether wine is "wholesome solely by itself," with some saying it helps the heart because it's so rich in antioxidants, and others claiming it causes cancer because of its alcohol content and impurities. But for eight percent of the population, this debate is largely irrelevant. Those 500 million people can't drink wine at all because they have an allergy to it.2
Now, researchers say they might have a solution to the wine-allergy problem. According to an article in The Journal of Proteome Research¸ Danish scientists have identified a particular type of organic compound in wine that they think accounts for adverse allergic reactions in some drinkers. The compounds, called ‘glycoproteins,' resemble allergens found in other foods including bananas and kiwi fruit. The glycoproteins are comprised of protein molecules with a carbohydrate attached. While some glycoproteins get formed during the fermentation process, others just live in the grape itself, providing a natural mechanism that fights off pathogens. Glycoproteins may keep the grapevine free from disease and pests, but when consumed, they may trigger typical allergy symptoms like headaches, respiratory symptoms, rashes, and digestive issues in sensitive individuals. The Italian Chardonnay used for the research was chock full of glycoproteins; the researchers counted 28 different types.
The discovery has the scientists thinking hard about commercial applications. If only they could remove the glycoproteins from wine, they reason, they could produce a hypoallergenic wine that all could drink. Dr. Giusseppi Palmisatto, the study director, says, "If we know the culprit, we should be able to treat it or remove it. We want to improve the quality of wine and the quality of life of allergic people." Spoken like one with wine in his blood, Dr. Palmissatto happens to be the son of Italian winemakers.3
But merely removing glycoproteins may not improve the quality of life of would-be drinkers, after all, because some suffer from red-wine headaches (RWH) that have little to do with allergies. These individuals can drink white wines without problem, but run into serious problems drinking the reds. Researchers long have been stumped about what the trigger might be in red wine, postulating that the most likely cause is sulfites or pesticide residues. But sulfites cause allergies in only one percent of the population, not accounting for the far larger number of people who get the headaches. As for pesticides, a Canadian study conducted by the Liquor Control Board of Ontario found no trace of pesticide residue in 99.8 percent of the wines on the shelves. If that accounting is to be believed, organic wines won't solve the problem. Then again, they may not be familiar with the Kingston University study in 2008 that found wines from many countries were heavily contaminated with heavy metals and pesticides.
Removing the glycoproteins also would leave the tannins intact -- another suspect in the RWH conundrum. Tannins, which are flavonoids that give the grape skins their color and that make your lips pucker in response to their bitter taste, are found in high concentrations in red wine.4 They affect the brain by causing the release of seretonin, and while a small amount of the brain chemical makes you feel serene and happy, too much can trigger headaches. But early research shows this effect mostly is limited to migraine sufferers, still not explaining the widespread RWH phenomenon.
There's also some speculation that histamines, which cause swelling, may be the RWH trigger, since red wine contains up to 200 percent more histamine than white, but studies to date don't support this theory, either. You can test if histamines cause your headaches by drinking a cup of tea an hour before drinking wine, since tea is a natural antihistamine. Experts also suggest trying Claritin, should you be pharmaceutically inclined.
The list of other possible RWH triggers goes on and on, making the discovery of glycoproteins seem less earth-shattering than it might have appeared at first glance. Also on the list of possible causes are prostaglandins and tyramine, yeast, and bacteria, substances in the cork, and even a reaction to the alcohol itself.
As researchers labor away trying to isolate the factors that makes it impossible for all to enjoy the high-quality of life that Beaujolais confers, others in the field of wine research are keeping a low profile these days. Red-wine research, in particular, suffered a setback with the recent conviction of a researcher accused of falsifying study findings.5 Dr. Dipak Das, a University of Connecticut scientist who published studies showing that resveratrol, an antioxidant in wine, produced health benefits, apparently fabricated and manipulated data in more than 145 instances. Many researchers say that Dr. Das' work wasn't significant enough to unravel the health claims made in support of red wine, but still, his work has been published in 11 journals and so raises enough questions to make that glass of Pinot Noir seem less urgent than before the bust happened. On the other hand, as Jon Barron has pointed out on several occasions, although resveratrol was once abundant in red wine, it is now almost absent due to the use of pesticides. Why does that matter? Because pesticides eliminate the need for the grapes to produce their own internal defenses -- thus reduced resveratrol. In other words, if you want resveratrol, you pretty much have to supplement.
In any event, there's still no fail-proof cure for wine allergies or RWH, except abstinence. If you choose that route, you'll be ahead of the game should other research go the way of the Dr. Das fiasco. Then again, if you're as spiffy as Stan Laurel, you just might not care.
1 Barr, Andrew. Chapter 1 inDrink: A Social History in America. The New York Times on the Web. 26 January 2012. < http://www.nytimes.com/books/first/b/barr-drink.html>
2 "Low-Allergenic Wines Could Stifle Sniffles and Sneezes in Millions of Wine Drinkers." 17 November 2010. Science Daily. 26 January 2012. <http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/11/101117121807.htm>
3 Cropasorial, Beppi. "Allergic to wine? They may have found the culprit." 13 January 2012. Winenow. 26 January 2012. <http://winenow.biz/2011/01/13/allergy-to-wine-they-have-found-the-culprit/>
4 "Red Wine Headache." Wikipedia. 26 January 2012. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_wine_headache>
5 Reitz, Stephanie. "Red wine researcher accused of fraud." 12 January 2012. San Francisco Chronicle. 26 January 2012. <http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2012/01/11/MNIJ1MO400.DTL>