In wine, biogenic amines are a byproduct of fermentation and malolactic conversion. They’re produced by yeasts and lactic acid bacteria during the process of amino acid decarboxylation, which lowers acidity and creates a more hospitable environment for the growth and survival of the bacteria.
Of the several different amines that result, tyramine and histamine
are the most frequent and problematic; together, they can cause a synergistic reaction known as biogenic amine toxicity, characterized by headaches, migraines, nausea, vomiting, and hypertension.
While not all no- and low-sulfur wines contain elevated levels of biogenic amines (and some contain none), their presence is related in part to winemaking that involves malolactic conversion. In cellars
where biogenic amine levels are high, higher-pH musts, native ferments, and the addition of no or low sulfur at the end of
malolactic conversion are the key contributing factors.
The resulting wines allow lactic acid bacteria to remain metabolically active and produce increasing amounts of amines during aging.
Casey Graybehl, R&D winemaker and production director for the Sonoma-based Obsidian Wine Co., makes three excellent low-sulfur wines for the brand’s Rabbit Hole label: Máslás, a piquette;
Pezsgö, a pétillant naturel; and Pear Blanc, a sparkling grape-and-pear wine.
Curious about amine production, he had the 2021 vintages tested. “Our winemaking practices for the Rabbit Hole wines, which are
typically wines bottled immediately after harvest, include native yeasts, low-pH musts with only a small amount of sulfur
added pre-bottling to inhibit malolactic fermentation, and zero filtration or fining,” he says.
“While this would seem like a scenario for biogenic amines to be produced, upon testing we did not see increased levels over our more standard winemaking practices. It’s very likely that our low-pH musts are inhibiting amine production.”
Wines with normal levels of biogenic amines alone aren’t likely to tip the scales. But sensitive consumers who unwittingly pair wines that have elevated levels with foods that are rich in amines, including
aged cheese and charcuterie, are at far greater risk for adverse reactions (alcohol itself also increases their toxic effect).
Studies have shown that a mere 10 milligrams of tyramine can trigger the onset of migraines and that, given foods with different levels of histamine, symptoms of biogenic amine toxicity can occur at levels between 75 and 300 milligrams in both histamine-intolerant and healthy consumers.
Because the consumption of biogenic amines can pose a threat to human health, the Food and Drug Administration has set a legal limit of 35 parts per million of histamine in seafood products, but no
specific regulations exist for it or other biogenic amines in wine.
In a comprehensive research paper for the Institute of Masters of Wine on the use of sulfur dioxide as related to biogenic amine levels in wine, Sophie Parker-Thomson, MW, concludes, “If SO2
additions are unconscionable for the Natural Wine movement, perhaps zero-added SO2 wines should carry a mandatory high-BA
warning unless they can prove otherwise.”