“Why is wine giving me a headache?” You would not believe how many times I get asked that question. And I feel you, after 20 years in this business, wine sometimes gives me a headache too. So let’s discuss the reasons wine can contribute to headaches. And more importantly, let’s discuss ways to minimize this occurrence.
IT’S NOT THE SULFITES!
I promise you it’s not sulfites, and this is backed by years of scientific research. Sulfites are a natural by-product of fermentation, and these naturally occurring compounds have been used for hundreds of years in wine production. They prevent spoilage and allow your favorite wines to stay fresh on store shelves. Some producers choose not to add additional sulfites and others chemically remove them, but in my experience, these wines “go bad” in a matter of months. Thus, a truly sulfite-free wine is next to impossible and more importantly, it’s not shelf stable.
I’m not at all saying there aren’t individuals out there with legitimate sulfite allergies. They exist, but they make up less than 1% of the population and often also suffer from asthma. When one of these folks ingests sulfites in any amount, they usually respond with hives in milder cases or difficulty breathing in more severe cases.
And one last thing — sulfite levels are much lower in wines than they are in many other common foodstuffs. Ever eat or drink orange juice, dried fruit, french fries, or packaged meats? Sulfite levels are much higher in all of those products than they are in wine.
Conclusion: Sulfites do not cause headaches and unless you break out in hives or have trouble breathing after drinking wine, your body is more than equipped to process these naturally occurring compounds.
SO WHY DOES DRINKING WINE GIVE ME A HEADACHE?
Let’s get to some answers, but before doing so, let me state that I am neither a chemist or a scientist. Far from it! BUT, through my many experiences and observations with wine combined with a bit of research, I think I might be able to explain.
Ever heard of tannins and/or histamines? Sure you have. And it’s these two naturally occurring compounds that are most likely the culprits of wine headaches. Tannins are naturally occurring compounds found in grape skins. If you’ve ever had a red wine that you described as astringent or drying, that’s tannin. And this compound is more highly concentrated in thicker skinned grapes. Think Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, and Syrah. And while tannins are a great antioxidant source, they can also put a hurtin’ on your head.
And to make matters worse, the charred oak barrels that many of these bigger red wines are aged in are also highly tannic. Thus, if you find yourself getting a wine headache and your wine of choice is Napa Cab, Mendoza Malbec, or Northern Rhone Syrah, you have a tannin sensitivity.
Histamines are found most commonly in food products that are aged — think aged/cured meats, cheeses, and yes, wine. And although histamine levels are much higher in aged cheeses and meats than they are in wine, some of us are cursed with low levels of diamine oxidase. That is the enzyme that breaks down histamines. If you experience classic allergy symptoms like headaches and/or stuffiness and sneezing after consuming wine, you might have low levels of diamine oxidase.
Conclusion: If you get headaches and other allergy symptoms after drinking wine, you are probably sensitive to tannin and/or you have low levels of the enzyme that breaks down histamines. It sounds hopeless doesn’t it? Trust me, there’s plenty of hope!
HOW TO AVOID WINE HEADACHES
Again, I’m not a doctor nor a scientist, but I can confirm that I rarely suffer from wine headaches or allergies any longer. And when I do, it’s most often because I’ve “over-tested” the product. Here are my recommendations.
1. Drink White Wine – I know this is not an option for all. If you know you’re not going to drink white wine, skip to #2. Because white wines are rarely fermented with the skins, there’s little or no tannin contained within. Be careful with oaked white wines though! The oak tannin and the aging process that inhibits histamines could come back to get you.
2. Drink Lighter Red Wines – Drink Pinot Noir, Gamay, Barbera, Dolcetto, Zweigelt, and a host of others. And specifically request un-oaked, lighter red wines. If you’ve read the rest of this piece, you’ll understand that lighter, no oak red wines are naturally lower in tannins and histamines. But if you’ve gotta’ have that big, oak barrel aged red wine, move on to #3.
3. Take Claritin – It works! I know it sounds crazy to take an antihistamine before you drink, but Claritin doesn’t make you drowsy like Benadryl or Zyrtec. I love me some big reds, but they don’t always love me back. So when drinking big, Claritin is your best friend.
4. Shop At A Local Independent Wine Store – This is my #1 solution. Having a conversation with a trained professional who also enjoys wine goes a long way. Not only can we help you avoid wine headaches, we can also keep you drinking what you like as you transition to new wines that don’t make you feel bad.
So there you go. It’s just my two cents, but I’ve been working in and enjoying wine for two decades. And through observation and experience and trial and error, I think my advice will make a difference. I welcome your questions and comments. Use the contact form below to ask questions, add to the conversation, or critique my findings. Cheers!
Owner/Operator at Table Wine