One of the most frequent conversations I have with my customers is about wine headaches and how to avoid them. In the interest of spreading information on a wider platform, I thought I'd explain in this blog what can cause headaches and what might not. In the spirit of transparency, I am not a doctor and every person's body reacts differently to alcohol, so although these are common culprits, you should always consult a physician with medical questions related to your own individual health.
Sufites are not causing your headache.
Let's break down what they are. Sulfites (sulfur dioxide or SO2) are a preservative with antioxidant and antibacterial effects that are added to many food products, including wine. Sufites are also a natural byproduct of the fermentation process, and wines without added sulfites still contain about 10-50 ppm (parts per million). Those wines have a very limited shelf-life, however, and once they are opened, they do not tend to drink as well the next day. Most winemakers add sulfites to ensure the longevity and quality of wine by protecting against oxidation and unwanted secondary fermentation. Drier wines and red wines need a smaller dose, while sweet and white wines need a larger one. The highest content used in wine is around 350 ppm (about the same as soda). Compare that to the amount in french fries (around 1900 ppm) and dried fruit (around 3500 ppm), and it's clear that if you are concerned about consuming sulfites, wine might not be your biggest worry.
Fewer than 1% of the population has a sensitivity to sulfites, and the incidence is higher among people who have severe asthma. Symptoms are more likely to be runny nose, sneezing, and difficulty breathing, rather than headaches, though. Because sulfites can trigger serious reactions in that limited population, the U.S. requires labels to state “Contains Sulfites” if the wine has more than 10 ppm. So that wine you had in France that didn't give you a headache still had sulfites—the label just didn't have to tell you about it.
Histamine, an organic compound, and tyramine, a naturally occurring amine, are both found in aged products such as cheese, cured meat, and alcohol. If your body is unable to process either of them, the increased amount in your system after ingestion can cause a change in blood pressure and headache, among other symptoms. Again, those who are sensitive to either substance are a small portion of the population.
Tannins are compounds found in the skin, stems, and seeds of grapes, and their presence in wine can be detected through the “mouthfeel.” If the feeling of the wine in your mouth is that of a drying or a puckering sensation, that wine can be called tannic. You might also know the feeling from drinking a cup of over-steeped black tea. All wines contain tannins, although red wines have more. They act as a natural antioxident to preserve the wine and allow it the potential for longer aging. Tannins are also found in chocolate, so if you have a sensitivity to that, or if you experiment on yourself with some stewed black tea and find that it gives you a headache, wine tannins might be the culprit.
Sugar and alcohol are not the best of bedfellows. When we consume sugar, our body must dilute it in order to properly process it. If you are not consuming enough water, your body must draw it from within, and one of the parts in which we feel that effect most acutely is in our brain. Alcohol is a diuretic, so while drinking you are also expelling water. This double draw on your system takes its toll if you are not properly hydrating. The best way to avoid this kind of headache is to drink water while imbibing, drink drier wines, and avoid cheaply made, mass-produced wines that often have sugar added to increase the alcohol content or to improve the flavor.
Ideally, wine should be made using little intervention, and many winemakers do stay true to the principle of letting the grapes speak for themselves and using indigenous yeasts. That is not always the case, however, and you should consider how added yeasts, powdered tannins, coloring, acidifiers, and fining products might be contributing to your headache. The only way to know is to drink different wines and see what has a negative effect on you, and what doesn't. I always encourage people who get wine headaches to try to write down which wines (brand, country of origin, varietal, alcohol content) have which effects, in order to see if there is a pattern.
Not all wines have the same alcohol content, and it's worth paying attention to whether wines with a higher ABV %(alcohol by volume) give you more trouble. California Cabs and Old Vine Zins tend to have a higher ABV (some as high as 15.5%), while most French wines tend to be around 12%.
Finally, it has to be asked: how much are you drinking? That's not meant to shame, but to be a reminder that a bottle of wine is actually 4-5 servings. If you drink a whole bottle in a night (and really, who hasn't), especially if you don't hydrate with water, you're most likely going to have a headache.
The bottom line is that every person's body processes alcohol differently, and there are a lot of possible factors that play into the infamous wine headache. If you are regularly afflicted by them, try to do some experimenting with this information and see what you can figure out about your body. Here's hoping that you find the right wine for YOU!