Red Wine Headaches…A Holiday Tradition?

As the weather turns cold, I drink BIG red wines.
Numerous people have asked me, “what causes red wine headaches?”
Although the possible causes for red wine headaches (RWH) are different, it is probably not due to sulfites.

There are widespread misconceptions about sulfites. Here are some that I have heard… along with the facts.

1. “I can’t drink red wine because of the sulfites, I must be allergic”.

A mere 1/4 of 1% of the population is allergic to sulfites, but because the possibility exists, the United States government added a labeling requirement on wines made in the U.S., or imported here, to require the term “contains sulfites”.

Sulfites are found in many things like dried fruit, lunch meats, sausage and cheese, and in much higher concentrations than wine. If you are truly allergic to sulfites you should probably avoid ALL wine and these foods as well.

2. “I did not get red wine headaches drinking wine while on vacation (in Europe)┬ábecause they don’t use sulfites.

Sulfites are naturally occurring in ALL wines, no matter where they are produced. They are a byproduct of yeast converting sugars into alcohol (fermentation).

An Italian wine maker told me that they wouldn’t put something as obvious as “contains sulfites” on the bottle because they wouldn’t list “contains grapes”. Therefore foreign wines, consumed outside of the U.S. might not have the warning on the bottle but sulfites are IN the bottle.

3. “Red wine gives me headaches so I have switched to white since it has less sulfites”.

White, dry and sweet, wines typically have MORE additional sulfites than red wines.

So back to the cause of RWH (because they do exist).

It is believed that it could be histamines. If that term sounds familiar it is because histamines are the culprit for most other allergic reactions. Some histamines make blood vessels expand or contract, causing pressure in the head, and, ultimately, a headache. Antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, Alavert) might help. Also, histamines are more commonly found in red wine than whites so if histamines are the problem, switching to white wines may help as well.

The cause of RWH could also be tannin, in that case, switching to white wine could help. If you love red wine (like me) try one with less tannin. Young Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah (Shiraz) and Nebbiolo are among the most tannic-avoid them. Lesser tannic red wines that are unoaked, or are made with Merlot or Pinot Noir would be a better choice. Better yet a light bodied red that doesn’t see much skin contact like Beaujolais Nouveau or Montepulciano or traditional Barbera.

Another reason could be additives to the wine- which could be wood chips, added sugars or acids. Poor quality (cheaper) wines most definitely could be the cause for why you don’t feel well the next morning.

Make a journal of the wines that don’t agree with you and see if there is something about them that is similar.

Because it is difficult to pinpoint the unique cause of RWH or other alcohol related headaches, try to consume lighter in color, less complex, alcoholic beverages. Think vodka, not barrel aged whiskey, simple stainless steel fermented white wines rather than new oak, barrel aged, extended maceration, full bodied, reds.

Last but not least, and the most obvious…”everything in moderation”. Even at the Holidays.


Doug aka Tolerant Taster

One thought on “Red Wine Headaches…A Holiday Tradition?

  1. If you are getting them from that brunello in the pic I’d be more than happy to take it off your hands! Great article.

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