Have you ever gone wine tasting and overheard the dreaded, “How much Sulphur is in this wine?” or “I am allergic to Sulphur”? Tasting room stewards often fear these remarks, while customers often make them under the presumption that they are allergic to Sulphur Dioxide. I’ve often wondered how some wines could affect me so severely that I’d get almost hay fever like symptoms after two or three sips, while others are perfectly fine. Strangely enough, after working in tasting rooms for almost 4 years, I have never once received a complaint about a white wine induced migraine or sulphur allergy, whereas red wine often receives some batting due to the presumption that they have a higher sulphur dioxide level. Something I have definitely received in my years of wine drinking, however, is a few nasty hangovers and migraines, I’m talking about those crippling kinds that make you wince…..for like 5 seconds before you’re ready to drink another glass.

What if I told you that there is another unspoken of culprit causing your migraines, that there is another sneaky crook causing those dreaded red wine hangovers? An almost silent word in the wine industry needs to be brought to light and taken more seriously by winemakers, “biogenic amines”. Produced by both yeast and malolactic bacteria, biogenic amines are hard to avoid. Poor Sulphur gets the blame for most of the damage caused by Biogenic Amines, well I intend to serve justice on the Sulphur’s behalf! – Okay, semi-justice, Mr Sulphur Dioxide isn’t entirely innocent.

Mr Sulphur D is not entirely as innocent as we’d like it to be, as some consumers are sensitive to higher levels of sulphur in wine, it should be noted that fruit juice and dried fruit products as well as many other foodstuffs have far higher (double to triple) quantities of sulphur dioxide in them than the levels of which are found in wine. Further, many of the allergic reactions triggered in consumers were found to occur in only red wine, while white wine cases are far less. This makes one wonder if Mr Sulphur D was solely responsible for the allergic reactions, or if it had an accomplice (Biogenic Amines).

Red wines undergo malolactic fermentation in order to soften the palate by increasing the pH (less acid), whereas in white wines the higher acidity (lower pH) levels are more desired, less white wines therefore undergo malolactic fermentation. Spontaneous malolactic fermentation is a risky business, the indigenous bacteria lottery isn’t always in your favour. Most indigenous bacteria produce higher levels of biogenic amines while spontaneous fermentation takes place, where the amines are released to act as a buffer against low wine pH. Histamine, a type of biogenic amine, is well-known to trigger allergic reactions. The reactions induced by the five biogenic amine types found in wine include heart palpitations, migraines, rashes, stomach ache and a respiratory reaction wherein an almost asthmatic response may be triggered.

Our culprit, Biogenic Amines, stands guilty of posing threat to consumer health. So, what can we as wine enthusiasts do to debunk the Sulphur myth? We can educate our consumers on biogenic amines, while still remaining sensitive to those who do really struggle with sulphur allergies. As winemakers, it is important to remember that the indigenous lottery isn’t always in your favour, while using a commercial strain may be much safer. Most commercial strains that have been isolated for malolactic fermentation, contain bacteria strains that produce less biogenic amines due to their improved tolerance to more acidic wines. It has also been shown that co-inoculation inhibits the enzymes found in O. oeni that break down amine groups to form biogenic amines, while sequential inoculation may still produce biogenic amines. The quantities produced by commercial strains are far less than those produced by indigenous strains.

Before learning about biogenic amines, I’d often thought of myself as one of the many wine drinkers that suffer from a severe sulphur allergy. My throat starts to close up after a hefty glass of red wine, but the reactions were far worse when I drank guava juice or mango juice. Beyond having an evident sulphur allergy, I started to realise that I didn’t have a reaction with all wines. White wines, that often have much higher sulphur levels, I could drink with ease. What happens if you’re allergic to sulphur and there are biogenic amines in your red wine? Well, luckily there are plenty of low sulphur reds out there, but as winemakers, the only solution to a lower biogenic amine count in your wine is to inoculate your wines with a commercial strain of O.Oeni.

It could be concluded as a court (of wine drinkers, winemakers and wine enthusiasts) we hereby find Biogenic Amines guilty of causing insufferable hangovers, migraines and the likes, while we see no reason to detain Mr Sulphur D – we will however charge him to do some community service for his role in triggering some allergic reactions, despite his good intentions to keep the wine clean and oxygen free!