Additives and allergies

Ask the Master of Wine
Australian Wine Selector Special Winter Edition 2006


Hi Nick,

I have loved wine for most of my adult life (most particularly Clare reislings and Hunter shiraz) and have lately developed allergies that have an effect on my sinuses and skin. For some reason, white wines now tend to effect me less than reds. Why is this so? Also, I have to really watch what is in the wine and now take more notice of what is written on the label. I now read things like “contains preservative 220” and “produced with by-products” but have little understanding of what that will mean for me. Can you please demystify what additives are used in wine?

The issue of allergies is a very complex one and requires more space than I am able to use. Here is a brief explanation before I refer you elsewhere…

Firstly preservatives. In wine, this almost invariably means sulfur dioxide (SO2) and its related compounds, commonly referred to on labels as 220 and 224.  SO2 has been used in most wines for hundreds of years, although it has only been since the 1980s that Australian wine labels must mention it, if used. It’s also used in other foods, such as take-away fruit salads and dried apricots. At the levels used, it does not cause problems unless an individual is particularly sensitive or is a severe asthmatic. Cask wines generally have higher levels than bottled wines and, amongst these, whites are higher than reds and young wines higher than old. If reds seem to be causing you greater problems than whites, SO2 is unlikely to be the cause.

Additives and by-products are used to improve wine balance and stability but don’t usually remain in the wine. For instance, a little egg white or milk is often used to reduce the rougher texture that tannins from grape skins and seeds can give a wine. The additive either settles or is filtered out before the wine is bottled, but the label should indicate it has been used if the winemaker thinks a trace may remain. This is why you may see references to milk or nut products on labels. Again, most of these have been used for hundreds of years and so are unlikely to be the cause of your recent problems.

Naturally occurring compounds called histamines have sometimes been implicated in people’s reactions against wine. While these may be present, they are at lower concentration in wine than in many foods, such as cheese, dates, bananas, eggplant and fish. Reds are often believed to have higher concentrations than whites, which may be suggestive in your case, but this is not necessarily the case. In any event, it is unlikely that all reds would affect you equally.

Our reactions to various things we contact, including foodstuffs, change with time. A past research colleague of mine had to change his job because he suddenly became sensitive to the laboratory rats he used to handle every day. In the last few years, I’ve found I have a reaction to eggplant, with my tongue burning slightly (which hasn’t stopped me eating it!). It is possible that there are naturally occurring components of some wines that are affecting you and it will be difficult to identify which these are without some trial-and-error. You may find some grape varieties affect you differently, for instance.

You can find excellent information, including a Frequently asked questions page, on The Australian Wine Research Institute’s website, at

I hope you find a solution.

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