What Causes Red Wine Headaches?

what causes red wine headaches

Enjoying wine is one of life’s great pleasures, but the joy is fleeting once a headache starts. We are not talking about an “oh no, I drank too much” headache, but a sensitive reaction after even a small pour of red wine. Not all reactions are the same – headache, stuffy nose, flushed skin, sinus pressure or a terrible night of sleep – but what is the cause?

There are different theories, but most of them lead back to the same principle that applies to food. Many people cannot tolerate overly processed foods. Likewise, less tampering from the winemaker results in a cleaner, purer wine that you can enjoy without those uncomfortable side effects. If you’ve experienced headaches in the past, why not try wines made with fewer additives and see if there is an improvement? Below we’ve compiled some information to help you better understand exactly what goes into wine that might be causing that pesky headache.

girls picnic on the beach

Quality farming, like we see from many of the wineries in Santa Ynez Valley, leads to quality grapes that need less interference. Whereas the larger the manufacturer and the cheaper the ingredients, the more additives likely used.

One of the most elegant things about healthy wine grapes (as compared to other fruits) is that with just the right touch and minimal intervention, grapes ferment and turn into wine on their own. But some wines are made with a lot more intervention.

Some wineries may try to compensate for cheaply grown or unhealthy fruit by adding, subtracting and tinkering with the wine to make a more commercial product. This tinkering could mean dumping additives like chemical preservatives, syrupy grape juice concentrate, bags of oak chips, or powdered tannin into wine tanks to mimic the flavors that nature intended. If you are sensitive to overly processed food, you might be suffering the same effects from wine.

wine picnic in santa barbara

Even in the very best wines sulfites are often added as a preservative to keep wine from spoiling due to bacteria or yeast going awry after bottling. It’s a practice common for many foods from dried fruits to fruit juice, packaged grains, most condiments, and beer. But sulfites also occur naturally in many foods, including most fruits and even grapes. As a result, it’s impossible to drink a truly sulfite free wine. The question instead is, how much has been added?

It’s up to the winemaker how much to use. If the winemaker is working with lower quality grapes as a result of poor farming, he or she will have to err on the side of caution and increase the sulfites added to keep the wine drinkable. Frederick Freitag, associate director of the Diamond Headache Clinic in Chicago, told the Wall Street Journal that sulfites could cause allergy and asthma symptoms, but they don’t cause headaches. Instead, most people that feel they have a sulfite allergy may be reacting to other additives in a more commercial wine.

Maybe you have said, “When I travel to Europe I can enjoy red wine, headache free because they don’t use sulfites.” In Europe, there are sulfites in wine, but other additives are strictly regulated, more so than in the United States. Whether in Europe or the United States, small, family run estates tend to rely on hands-on farming with fewer chemical additives.

If you still believe sulfites are the culprit, you can test it through other foods that tend to be much higher in sulfites than those found in red wine. Some likely sources are canned vegetables and soups, potato chips and fries, bottled and frozen juices and especially dried fruit.

ladies drinking wine on the beach

Research shows that occasionally tannins can cause problems for people. Tannins are a natural element found in grape skins and seeds, walnuts, oak, and tea leaves that give the tongue a drying sensation. If you are suspicious, try drinking an extra steeped black tea which will contain more tannins than red wine. If you are sensitive, you may want to try a wine made from grapes with thinner skins, and therefore lighter tannins, like Grenache, and again avoid inexpensive wines that may have powdered tannin as an additive.

red wine on the beach

We commonly hear that wine headaches are from all the sugar, but did you know most high-quality red wines are without any sugar? (A wine without sugar is what wine aficionados like to call “dry.”) When the natural sugar of the grapes and yeast combine, the yeast consumes all of the sugar and creates alcohol. During fermentation, the alcohol percentage rises until the yeast is done fermenting leaving a dry wine with maybe a few grams of sugar. So why are some suffering uncomfortable reactions? Again, it goes back to the likely culprit of additives, as some wineries will add manufactured products like grape concentrate to change the flavor, sweetness, and texture of the final wine – all the more reason to seek out quality.

picnic with girlfriends on the beach

The absolute best way to find the right wine for you is to know your winemaker! Winemakers devoted to making wine with the least intervention possible will likely be shouting it from the rooftops. Look at their website and read about their approach. If you see keywords like organic, biodynamic, handmade and small production – you may be on the right path.

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