Biogenic amines

I’ve heard you say that wild yeast fermentations produce higher levels of biogenic amines. Can you point us to the research behind this?

This is a pretty complex subject. A good general paper is “Biogenic Amines in Wine: Understanding the Headache” in S. Afr. J. Enol. Vitic., Vol. 29, No. 2, 2008.

BGAs (histamine, putracene, cadaverene, etc.) are caused by bacteria. These can thrive in uninoculated fermentations which sit around prior to fermentation, and also if ML is not inoculated there is potential for high BG strains of various genera to conduct the ML.

Just as important in health considerations is urea production (See Ethyl carbamate production by selected yeasts and lactic acid bacteria in red wine - legal limit, Uthurry, C.A.; Lepe, J.A. Suárez; Lombardero, J.; Uthurry, C.A.; Lepe, J.A. Suárez; Lombardero, J.; Journal of Food Chemistry, Volume 94 (2) 2006). Urea is formed by yeast fermentation, particularly in highly fertile vineyards and perhaps as a result of DAP addition. When wine is heated (a common occurrence in the distribution system), urea is converted to the carcinogen ethyl carbamate. While 3 ppb is the Canadian legal limit, commercial wines have been shown to be in excess of 100 times this rate. High urea wines can be treated with urease enzyme to prevent formation, but this is expensive and enzyme treatments are of course scorned by our guardians of naturalness.

The U.S. FDA has not established a legal limit for ethyl carbamate, but instead is at present holding the industry to a self-policing standard to keep a low industry average. Prise de Mousse yeast was shown by Ough to be very low in urea production. Ironically, as long as Gallo keeps its urea levels low, there is room for a tiny cadre of high level wines, but if natural fermentation becomes more popular, FDA may step in as they contemplated in the 80s.

I have been pointing our Natural Wine consumer leaders to this research for years, and I mostly just get a shrug. I am unaware of a single instance of an attempt to alert the public. Winemakers are not the only ones keeping inconvenient truths under wraps. However, I will say that Isabel Legeron ( has been highly supportive of a full disclosure site where these things could be discussed.

I should hasten to add that I am a high risk eater. Gimme my Epoisse, my raw oysters, my steak tartare, and I’m gonna live well until I die. I have no problem with uninoculated wines like the ones Joel and Morgan Peterson and Gideon Beinstock make - they don’t bother me at all, so don’t change a thing. But other, wiser, more health conscious people deserve to know the facts, that’s all.

Thanks for hipping me to

Lots of food for thought there.


Sorry, I did not have time to read the whole study. Is there a summary - like average BA content in wild ferm wine vs average in added yeast wine?

Also, do these compounds impact aroma in terms of complexity?

Are there off aromas associated with very high BA content in wines?

The bottom line is that until winemakers start coming clean and defending their practices, the public sphere will be dominated by the ill-informed. Check out my proposal for a full disclosure site. Comments and refinements are welcome.

Also, I have a funding source and need some quotes from database web geniuses to write the site.

Lazy SOB. I am somewhat averse to dumbing down a complex subject that is so contraversial. All that is remembered is the oversimplification. Been there. This is why scientific papers so rarely appear on Twitter, although e=mc2 would have made a nice tweet.

That said, check out Table 2, page 9 at the bottom for levels with and without ML inoculation.

Here are some choice quotes:

Page 2: Commercial O. oeni strains are selected for their oenological parameters, including the absence of amino acid decarboxylases. According to in vitro studies conducted by Moreno-Arribas et al. (2003), none of four commercial malolactic starter cultures examined could produce histamine, tyramine or putrescine. Martín-Álvarez et al. (2006) also compared inoculated with spontaneous malolactic fermentation in 224 samples of Spanish red wine. The authors found that inoculation with a commercial starter culture of lactic acid bacteria could reduce the incidence of fermentation in wines. Starter cultures could eliminate indigenous bacteria, or might be able to degrade biogenic amines produced by undesirable strains.

Page 7: Histamine poisoning is sometimes referred to as “scombroid fish poisoning” due to illness resulting from consumption of fsh such as tuna, mackerel and sardines; while high levels of tyramine in cheese causes a phenomenon known as the “cheese reaction” (Taylor, 1986; ten Brink et al., 1990). These false food allergies are of particular importance in wine, because the presence of ethanol, acetaldehyde and other biogenic amines may promote the harmful effects of histamine and tyramine by inhibiting their normal metabolism in humans (Landete et al., 2006). Histamine is often described as the most important biogenic amine since it is one of the most biologically active amines (Halász et al., 1994). Histamine causes dilation of peripheral blood vessels, capillaries and arteries, thus resulting in hypotension, fushing and headache (Silla Santos, 1996). It also causes contraction of intestinal smooth muscle, resulting in abdominal cramps, diarrhoea and vomiting (Taylor, 1986).

Apart from allergic response, other serious human pathologies caused by biogenic amines include carcinogenesis and tumor invasion (ornithine-derived polyamines and histamine), immune response and neurological disorders (histamine), the formation of carcinogenic nitrosamines by reaction between nitrite and secondary amines (putrescine, cadaverine, agmatine), migraines and Parkinson’s disease, Schizophrenia and mood disorders (tyramine) (Smith, 1980; ten Brink et al., 1990; Silla Santos, 1996; Medina et al., 1999). The toxic level of biogenic amines depends on the tolerance of the individual for the compound, the concentration of total biogenic amines and the consumption of ethanol and/or drugs.

Also page 7: Generally the toxic dose in alcoholic beverages is considered to be between 8 and 20 mg/L for histamine, 25 and 40 mg/L for tyramine, while as little as 3 mg/L phenylethylamine can cause negative physiological effects (Souferos et al., 1998). Kanny et al. (2001) reports that a normal individual can tolerate 120 mg/L of histamine taken orally before symptoms occur, but only 7 μg administered intravenously. The upper limits for histamine in wine in some European countries are (mg/L histamine): Germany (2), Holland (3), Finland (5), Belgium (5 to 6), France (8), Switzerland and Austria (10) (Lehtonen, 1996).

I seriously doubt that the use of native ferments will cause the FDA to re-visit the matter of ethyl carbamate in wine.
Far more likely is the scenario that the FDA will ban the use of Velcorin, since that could possibly lead to the generation of small amounts of methyl carbamate, also a suspected carcinogen.

I wouldn’t be foolish enough to speculate on what internal politics make the FDA tick. I mainly wanted to point out the irony that the Natural Wine movement depends on the big producers to keep the averages low. I was involved with Art Caputi at Gallo in publicizing this issue, and they were certainly concerned that the small producers were going to send FDA off in an unfortunate direction. I published an article about it in Vineyard and Winery Management Magazine in Sept/Oct 1993 about “Playing It Safe With Urea Levels,” so it was a serious consideration at the time, and the movement towards Prise de Mousse based on Corny Ough’s work proved sufficient to calm the FDA down.

The Japanese in your neck of the woods are certainly conservative about Velcorin. I was under the impression that the matter of methyl carbamate was well resolved by Bayer back in the late 70s when they replaced DEDC with DMDC based on the demonstrated non-carcinogenicity of the methyl derivative, but cancer research has progressed infinitely since then. Most other countries allow it, and I was surprised to learn that the non-alcoholic sparlkling wine I make for a client could not be sold in Japan unless we pasteurized it, which we refused to consider, since that would not only have ruined the product but also have raised the ethyl carbamate levels unacceptably. Of course, they didn’t care about either of those things. EC levels apparently aren’t regulated in non-alcoholic drinks in Japan.

Interesting. From what I know of the subject I would have thought Caputi to be far more concerned with goings-on closer to home, the big boys in the Central Valley who employed production practices–the application of heat to musts and wines, especially in conjunction with the use of low-cost ammonia-based fermentation aids–likely to yield relatively large amounts of ethyl carbamate.

I don’t get the irony either.
With EC the FDA’s primary interest was in conducting survey studies to see how many finished wines approached a certain line in the sand. Industry-wide averages weren’t really central to the discussion.

The reason the small guys were important to Art was that the way FDA did the surveys was through “market basket” sampling in retail stores. They’d pick, say, 100 wines at random without regard to the size of production, the majority being small wineries.