If you have celiac disease or any kind of gluten intolerance, you know that there are lots of foods that you have to avoid, lest you end up doubled over in pain—or worse. But one important (at least for us) question remains: Is wine gluten-free? The short answer is, yes. Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Wine Spectator, "A classic example of an alcoholic beverage that does not have gluten is wine. Typically, it is made by grapes, and the process, under normal circumstances, has no exposure to gluten whatsoever." But it’s also important to note that there are a few exceptions that you should be aware of. Read on for everything you need to know about imbibing with a gluten intolerance.
Is There Gluten in Wine?
First, a quick refresher. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If you have celiac disease or are for some other reason gluten sensitive or intolerant, it’s important to avoid foods or drinks that have gluten. Some symptoms of gluten intolerance are bloating, stomach pain, diarrhea, skin problems and more. Where wine is concerned, most varietals are gluten-free, and therefore safe to consume. Because it’s usually just fermented grapes, wine is naturally gluten-free. Some winemakers, however, use methods that introduce gluten into the mix.
Gluten Can Be Introduced During the Fining Process
For those unfamiliar with winemaking, fining is a process that removes unwanted elements (like proteins, plant compounds and yeast) from wine, to ensure it’s clear and smells and tastes good. Fining agents bind to unwanted elements, which drop to the bottom of the wine and can easily be filtered out. Common gluten-free fining agents include egg whites, milk protein, fish protein and bentonite clay (a vegan option). It’s rare, but gluten itself can be used as a fining agent. Even so, studies have shown that when gluten is used as a fining agent, the amount of gluten residue present once the wine has been bottled isn’t enough to cause a reaction in those with a gluten intolerance. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s gluten-free food labeling guidelines, foods (and drinks) may be labeled “gluten-free” if they’re either inherently gluten-free or they contain less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that gluten that remains in wine falls well below 20 ppm. Still, there is a small percentage of people with celiac disease that can be impacted by trace amounts of gluten below 20 ppm. If you fall into that group, it’s smart to go straight to the source and find out what particular wineries use for fining. Better safe than sorry.
Wine Can Be Contaminated Depending on How It’s Aged and Stored
At this point in time, most wine is aged and stored in stainless steel containers. Less commonly, it can also be stored in oak barrels that are sealed with a small amount of wheat paste (which does contain gluten). As with wines that are made using gluten as a fining agent, the risk of serious contamination from this is low. In 2012, Tricia Thompson, founder of Gluten Free Watchdog, measured the gluten levels of two different wines finished in wheat paste–sealed barrels. She found that the wines contained far less gluten than the FDA’s 20 ppm standard. Again, to be absolutely sure how the wine you’re drinking is aged, find out from the winery what they use as a sealant.
Wine Cooler Drinks Can Contain Gluten
Over the past few years, wine cooler drinks have had something of a renaissance. No longer considered lame, they’re now made by hip beverage companies with chic, Instagrammable branding. Though they look like wine-based drinks, many are actually malt beverages. Malt is a germinated cereal grain made from barley, which contains gluten. The solution? Be sure to read the packaging carefully. If it’s labeled as a malt beverage, steer clear. If it’s truly a mixture of wine and fruit juice, go forth.
What Are the Best Gluten-Free Alcohol Choices?
1. Wine (Bearing in Mind the Above Caveats)
As outlined above, there are a few exceptions to the "wine is gluten-free" rule. Aside from those, however, wine is a great choice for the gluten-intolerant among us who are looking to have a drink or two. Again, if you're not certain about how a wine is fined or stored, a little research can go a long way in feeling more comfortable raising a glass.
2. Most Spirits
If you’re not a wine person, you might be psyched to find out that many spirits are also gluten-free. According to the University of Chicago Medicine, even liquors that are distilled from gluten-containing grains, like rye or barley, are generally considered to be safe as well. Why? The distillation process removes proteins, including gluten, from the liquor. One thing to be careful of, though, is flavored distilled liquor, “Because the flavoring is added after the distillation process and therefore can introduce gluten back into the product.” In the case of flavored distilled liquors, contact the manufacturer to learn the gluten-free status of the end product.
3. Gluten-Free Beer
Typically, beer is made using water, hops, yeast and barley. Barley is a grain that contains gluten. But, while most beers are not gluten-free, there is a thriving market for gluten-free beers, which are derived from grains other than wheat, barley or rye (rice, corn, sorghum and millet are often used). Some breweries are even dedicated gluten-free facilities, to avoid contamination of any kind. The point is, if gluten is a no-no for you, stick to beers explicitly labeled as gluten-free—there are plenty of great options out there.