Q: I am allergic to oak. It is difficult to find a wine I can drink in many restaurants. What wines can you recommend? Pinot Grigio was my best choice; but now many Pinot Grigios from California are being aged a bit in oak. Help!—Gail Dudack, New York
A: I spoke with a couple of allergists, and they agreed that when people are diagnosed with an “oak allergy,” it typically refers only to oak pollen, which can cause the sneezy feeling, runny nose and itchy eyes that people may experience in springtime, when oak trees bud. Very few people are diagnosed with “oak wood” allergy, and those people most likely do a lot of woodworking with oak; their allergy presents itself as a respiratory irritation from inhaling oak wood dust.
There is no evidence that people with allergies to either oak pollen or oak wood would have any difficulty with drinking wine that was aged in oak barrels, and they should be safe for you to drink.
However, if you believe there is some sort of cause-and-effect relationship between wine aged in oak barrels and an allergic reaction, then perhaps you could perform a blind tasting (under the supervision of your own allergist) where you can see if there is a difference in how your body responds.
Wine—and alcohol in general—can cause certain reactions in people that might seem like allergies. Alcohol can dilate the blood vessels in your nose and cause you to get stuffed up. Some people have trouble breaking down the histamines in wine. Perhaps related to your situation: tannins—which are mostly found in red wines and oaked wines—can increase your levels of serotonin, and an intolerance of this hormone can cause headaches in some folks.
All that said, if you still want to avoid oaked wines, your best bet is to look to white wines—particularly Sauvignon Blancs (try some from New Zealand) or unoaked Chardonnays, which are produced in California, New Zealand and Australia in particular. Some might say “unoaked” right on the bottle, while others will use words like “silver,” “metalico” or “naked” to indicate that they haven’t been exposed to oak barrels.
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