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This Wine gives me a headache!

Brian Gurnham, Chief Cork Officer

Let me state at the outset that I am not a physician, nor have I ever played one on television, nor did I stay in a Holiday Inn Express last night.  I do however, on a regular basis, hear customers expound on how and why various wines give them a headache.  We're not talking about the hangover headache caused by dehydration, but rather the headache that arrives on the scene soon after quaffing the first few sips of a favorite wine, or more likely the next morning.  Given the wide array of purported causes, I thought it would be worth a little research into this sensitive topic.  I was frankly somewhat surprised at what I found.

Sulfites

The most common reason given by consumers for headaches is the presence of sulfites.  Perceived as more common in red wine – sulfites are considered to have provided the genesis of the RWH or Red Wine Headache syndrome.  The preponderance of evidence indicates that sulfites are not the culprit.  While sulfites can produce severe reactions in some people, severe enough that beginning in 1987 the United States Department of Agriculture required a “Contains Sulfites” label on wines that contain more than 10 parts per million, this allergic reaction occurs in far less than 1% of the population.  Furthermore, the nature of the allergic reaction includes a range of symptoms such as irregular heartbeat, low blood pressure, asthma and only occasionally headaches.  So while it is possible that your headache stems from an allergic reaction to sulfites, the odds favor another source.  Regardless, I encourage you to try a USDA certified organic wine without a sulfite statement, indicating no added, and only very low levels of naturally occurring sulfites.  If you headaches disappear, consider yourself one of a very small number of unlucky oenophiles.

Enter Biogenic Amines

A much more likely root cause, at least by many accounts, is the presence of one or more biogenic amines, small nitrogen containing organic compounds produced from amino acids.  Of the four most commonly found biogenic amines in wine, Histamine and Tyramine are singled out as potential headache generators.  Histamine is known to dilate blood vessels and Tyramine can cause increased blood pressure in the absence of certain liver enzymes, either of which could bring on headaches.  Both red and white wine are listed as “Avoid” on a low Tyramine diet published by Chicago's nationally ranked Northwestern Memorial Hospitals.  But as with virtually all potential RWH causes, the link between biogenic amines and headaches is unproven.

Maybe Tannins?

Tannins, the naturally occurring polyphenolic compounds common in grape skins, stems and seeds, have also taken some of the blame as the potential cause for headaches.  Tannins are known to facilitate the gathering of and combining of molecules in close proximity.  It is possible that this attribute may result in the binding of starches used in the production of Serotonin.  Serotonin is a hormone widely known to play a role in vasoconstriction (the constriction of blood vessels).  A lack of Serotonin could result in reduced blood flow to the brain and voila, your headache arrives on the scene.

What you can do

I have no doubt that wine induced headaches are real, too many people regularly lament of their inability to drink this or that type of wine.  There are lots of potential causes and precious little scientific evidence that establishes a clear correlation.  Given the absence of any interested party, government or otherwise stepping up with the millions of dollars required to research the issue, about the best I can suggest is to don your Sherlock Holmes flat cap, and carefully observe and record your wines and their relationship to the arrival of the dreaded headaches.  The more specific you can be the better.  For example, knowing whether the wine is aged in French versus American Oak, and the percentage of new versus reused barrels could potentially impact the amount of tannins in the finished wine and correlate to your headache triggers.  Similarly, watch residual sugar levels; determine whether or not the wine underwent malolactic fermentation.  Track where the grapes are grown (soils can impart various different chemicals into the same grape variety grown in different regions) and experiment with low sulfite wines.

When you find a wine that gives you a headache research the producer's web site and learn as much as possible about the wine.  Many wineries will have fact sheets about their wines with information beyond what is contained on the label.  Write down your findings using tasting notes or, if you are as analytical as I am, an Excel spreadsheet.  Look for common elements that consistently result in headaches.

The good news is that most people who get headaches from wine can find a type of wine that can be enjoyed without repercussions, even if a little homework is required.

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