Gluten Free Wine Explained

You're going on a gluten-free diet. Good for you! And now, then it hit you: does that mean you can not drink wine? The fear sinks in. We know it's a horrible thought, the idea that you might not enjoy wine. But rest assured, we have your answers. You can, in fact, drink wine. Below, we've outlined why and how and discussed any precautions you should take. Buckle up; we're in for a gluten-free ride! 

Is Wine Gluten-Free?

Both red and white wine are a naturally gluten-free alcohol because they are made from grapes and occasionally other fruits that are inherently and intrinsically gluten-free. However, some winemakers use gluten during the fining process and aging process. For example, if wine is aged in oak barrels sealed with wheat paste, tiny amounts of gluten may be passed into the wine's final product. 

But let's back up for a second. What the heck is gluten, anyhow? Gluten protein is found in wheat gluten, rye, and barley malt that those who have celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, gluten allergy, or gluten intolerance have to be careful to avoid. 

The standard process of making wine goes as following:

  1. Crushing and pressing: This is the process by which the juice is extracted from the grapes. When making white wine, the juice is separated from the grape skins immediately to avoid color and flavor transfer. In contrast, when making red wine, color and flavor are desirable, and therefore, the skins are kept with the juices. 

  2. Fermentation: Yeast, which is also gluten-free, converts juice sugars into alcohol. For sparkling wine goes a second fermentation process to make it bubbly. Everything in this step is naturally gluten-free. 

  3. Clarification: This is the step that makes wine clear instead of cloudy. The most popular and common method to achieve this is fining, including using another substance to bind and remove unwanted elements. Various fining agents can be used, all of which are gluten-free. 

  4. Aging and storage: In this process, winemakers can decide what they will house their wines in. Tanks include stainless steel tanks, oak barrels, or other containers. Stabilizing agents and preservatives, including sulfur dioxide, may also be added, but these are typically gluten-free. While wine ingredients are naturally gluten-free, contamination with gluten may be possible during this step due to the containers. 

As you can see from the steps, wine is naturally gluten-free, but it would be during this last step if gluten entered the wine. However, the difficulty is that deciphering if wine is gluten-free is tricky because the United States, like many other countries, does not require the list of ingredients on its labels. 

How Does Gluten Get In During the Wine-Making Process?

As noted, if gluten is to find its way into wine, it would happen during the fining process, which removes unwanted elements, like proteins, plant compounds, and yeast to make the wine clear rather than cloudy and smells and tastes good. How does fining agents work? Essentially, they bind to unwanted elements, which cause them to drop to the bottom of wine, where they can easily be filtered out. 

Common fining agents used include egg whites, milk protein, and fish protein, which are all gluten-free. Occasionally, winemakers may choose to use vegan varieties for fining agents. Gluten can also be used for fining. However, this is extremely rare. When gluten is used as a fining agent, gluten typically remains behind as sediment at the bottom of the storage container, subsequently filtered out when the wine is transferred to bottles. Even when gluten is utilized, studies reveal that the remaining gluten after the fining process is well below twenty parts per million. In other words, 0.002%. This amount is well below the Food and Drug Administrations' limit for labeling items gluten-free. 

However, it should be noted that a minimal subset of people who have celiac disease might be sensitive to trace amounts of gluten, even if it is below 20 ppm. If you are one of the few that falls into this category, you likely are already aware that you should research wineries and ask what fining process they use or purchase a wine that is certified gluten-free brands. 

Most wine sold in the United States is overseen by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. However, varieties that contain less than 7% alcohol by volume are regulated by the FDA. For the TTB, gluten-free labeling if no ingredients containing gluten are used, and precaution was taken to avoid cross-contamination with gluten during alcohol production.

Are There Wines You Can Drink on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Although there is potential contamination during the fining process or the aging of wine in oak barrels sealed with wheat paste, wine is mostly considered gluten-free and safe. However, if you are extremely sensitive to gluten, you can purchase wines that are certified gluten-free. 

What About Wine Spritzers and Other Alcoholic Beverages?

Good news! Pure, distilled liquor, like tequila, even those made from wheat, barley, or rye, is considered gluten-free. Therefore, alcohols are safe for people with celiac disease because of the distillation process. The only aspect one should make sure they are aware of is to ensure they know about any flavorings or additives after distillation. These additives pose a risk for gluten cross-contamination because they are made in facilities that process products containing wheat, barley, or rye. 

TTB, short for Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, regulates alcoholic beverages in the United States ruled that distilled alcohol, even if it is made with gluten-containing grain, can be labeled gluten-free. The ruling happened when the FDA clarified its labeling requirements for hydrolyzed, fermented, and distilled products. Companies that make distilled alcohol must have to prove, upon request, that there is no protein in the distillate or any added ingredients and that many precautions took place to prevent cross-contact. This includes storage materials. 

The TTB continues to allow the term gluten-free on labels and in advertisements for alcohol beverages produced without grains containing gluten or other ingredients containing gluten, assuming the industry member takes proper measures to ensure that its raw materials, components, production facilities, storage materials, and finished products were not exposed to gluten. 

Drink Wine and Stay Safe

In short, drink wine and stay safe. Become your own gluten-free watchdog. You know your body and your limits best when it comes to gluten content, gluten levels, and food allergies, so you know the precautions needed going forward!