Headache from Zombie-wine?
I have had the good fortune to hear from many of you that our wines do not give you headaches, while many other wines cause pain. These comments usually follow with questions about our sulfite levels. To which I may respond with a long winded explanation of biogenic amines, yeast and ML inoculates and my quest to dispel the inaccurate vilifying of sulfites.
But often I will ask a simple question, “Do you enjoy dried fruit?”
If yes, is it sulphur free? Most dried fruits are treated with much larger doses of sulphites than is found in wine. If you eat dried fruit without headaches or a reaction, than I sincerely doubt that you have a reaction to sulfites in wine.
The culprit is most likely biogenic amines.
Biogenic amines are simple nitrogen based molecules produced from the metabolic system of microbes and animals from amino acids. We are all quite familiar with histamines, a big player in the biogenic amine family. Histamine production in wine can occur from both yeasts and bacteria, but are most commonly produced during secondary fermentation, or ML bacteria. Personally I have an irritating reaction to histamines in wine made with wild ML, getting a rapid headache, stuffy nose and blotchy skin.
Benadryl helps, but I often question the logic in medicating myself in order to drink wine! The good news is that you can avoid a histamine reaction to wines by ensuring that the wine is produced without wild yeast and wild ML strains.
I use inoculates of both yeast and ML to try to avoid biogenic amine production in my wines. Of course, herding yeasts and bacteria is not an exact science, so it is an exercise in prevention rather than eradication. However, I carefully select yeast strains that have no biogenic amine production detected in lab trials over average life spans indicative of an average period of virility. Once the yeast/bacteria have done their duty the metabolic process is ceased and the wine is biologically inert. The problem that may arise occurs through a process of sustained populations within a winery and genetic drift. Apparently the production of biogenic amines is a proclivity for microbes, and can be expressed via mutations after a surprisingly short period of evolution. Thus, the habitual inoculation of microorganisms must be practiced to outcompete the winery’s native populations of yeast and bacteria!
You may ask, if histamines are most commonly the result of ML bacteria, then why inoculate yeasts as well?
There are more disgusting biogenic amines than pesky histamines…and they are putrescine and cadaverine. Both of these gross molecules are most commonly produced by wild yeasts during primary fermentation. I bet you can imagine where they got their names…sensory maybe? Not only do these tiny molecules smell terrible in very small quantities but they affect the taste of wine as well. If you have ever had a wine that you swear smelled like a dead body you were probably trying a wine made from an icky wild yeast strain gone way off the reservation.
So why don’t all wine makers try to avoid the production of biogenic amines?
First, not all wine makers are aware of biogenic amines. Their health impacts have only been suspected in the past 40 years, and the past decade has seen an explosion of research. However, there is a long tradition of using wild yeasts to complete all fermentations in wineries. Many producers scoff at the idea of using inoculates at all. Also, it is quite in vogue in the US to tout wild yeast production wines for marketing schemes and stylistic reasons. Yeast and ML inoculates are expensive, too; they cost me around $70/ton, or roughly $1.40/case of wine. In the world of tiny profit margins, this expense can take a big bite out of revenue.
I love the idea of using wild yeast strains, and I would do it in a heart beat if the outcome were more controllable. However, I have to make a wine that I can drink and endorse…and it if gives me a headache, I can’t make it.
Besides, the idea of making wine with cadaverine in it borders on the macabre…