Updated: May 19, 2020
Ever wonder what causes those wine headaches and if there is anything you can do to avoid them? I’ve been asked this question a few times so I dug up some of the top theories.
The reality is that only a few studies have been conducted on this topic, generating a few theories and one likely culprit.
4 Wine Headache Theories
Theory 1: Sulfites
This is the most popular theory among wine lovers. However, sulfites only affect 1% of the population. Those who are allergic to sulfites experience difficulty breathing and red rashes, but it doesn’t cause headaches. You can test whether you’re allergic to sulfites by eating dried apricots or figs. These dried fruits contain high levels of sulfites. So, this myth is busted.
Theory 2: Histamine
Histamine is a biogenic amine that can cause allergic reactions like congestion. It’s found at higher levels in wines that have gone through malolactic fermentation. All red wines and some white wines (like Chardonnay) go through this type of fermentation. Other foods that contain biogenic amines are aged cheeses, cured meats, and dried fruits. One study showed that taking antihistamine drugs before consuming red wine did not prevent a wine headache. While this could be a cause of congestion, it is not a cause of headaches. This theory is busted.
Theory 3: High alcohol content
Okay, this sounds obvious. If you drink too much wine, you’ll get a headache. So, to counteract the headache caused by the alcohol content, drink a glass of water between glasses of wine. You can also manage your intake by drinking one glass of wine per hour.
However, I think most of us are trying to figure out the non-alcohol induced headache. Many have experienced headaches that start within 30 minutes to a few hours of drinking wine. This type of headache likely has nothing to do with the alcohol content. That leads us to the next theory.
Theory 4: Tannins
Tannins come from the grape skins, seeds, and stems. These components are used in red wine for the purpose of developing the red color, along with developing full, dry mouthfeel and rich flavors. Tannins are part of a larger group called Flavonoid Phenolic Compounds. These compounds create interactions that trigger headaches when consuming red wine and not when consuming white wine or sparkling wine. While no study says this is definitive evidence, this is the most likely source of the problem.
Cause of Wine Headaches
All signs point to Tannins as the culprit. Does this mean you should stick with white and sparkling wine if you suffer from red wine headaches? Not necessarily. Some grapes contain higher tannins such as Cabernet Sauvignon while others contain low levels of tannins like Pinot Noir. The production process also affects the amount of tannin in wine.
Find a Headache-Free Red Wine
To find a red wine that doesn’t give you a headache, trial and error may be your best bet. You can test out a new wine by drinking half a glass and waiting 15-30 minutes to see if a headache starts to come on. Keep track of which grapes and producers work for you and which don’t. This list of low tannin reds is a good place to start. Then work in a few from the medium tannin list to see if any of those pass the test.
Low Tannin Red Wines: Barbera Gamay Pinot Noir Valpolicella
Medium Tannins Red Wines: Carignan Carménère Grenache Malbec Syrah Zinfandel
Best wishes! And please share any insights you’ve found with wine and headaches. What reds cause your headaches and which ones do not?